Talks with Vox: Creators of OWN IT Helen Brosnan and Kendall Ciesemier

Ladies, leave your men at home (or bring them to Gaston Hall to learn about female leadership), because this Saturday, March 28 is the second annual OWN IT Summit.

This week, Vox sat down with the creators of the OWN IT Summit, Helen Brosnan (COL ’16) and Kendall Ciesemier (COL ’15), to get some insight into the high-profile event.

Vox: How did you first get the idea for OWN IT?

Helen: We met when I was a freshmen and Kendall was a sophomore in the student group, GU Women and Leadership. We were in the group, trying to help form it, and we wanted to do this kind of big meeting at the end of the year, and the more we got into planning it, it became a bigger and bigger thing because we were like “Wow, this is a real issue on campus.” We thought, what about doing this meeting in the frame of leadership? No matter who you are, where you’re from, what your trying to do, let’s find out the best skills and best advice you can get to be the best sort of leader when you graduate. The more we went on, the more we had people say, “Thank God you’re talking about this, this is such a necessary conversation,” and I think people want an avenue and venue to talk about this.

Kenall: Just to add to that, from our own experience, we have seen women having these conversations about leadership without including college women or younger women in general. So you have all these culminating events surrounding women’s leadership and engagement with all of these really successful high powered women and we said to ourselves, how do we create a venue that brings this experience to college women? I think that we look at those statistics that more women are graduating college than men at this point, so the education gap is not there, we have access to education in the United States, but the leadership gap still is a problem. You don’t see enough women on corporate boards, in leadership of their own company.

Helen: Yeah, even if you look at a company like Chipotle, which has a really great managerial system, only something like 20% of promoted managers have been women. So even a company that is actively trying to fight these stereotypes is even having problems. So, what if those women had learned how to advocate for themselves, ask for advice, or ask for a promotion 10 years ago?

Vox: What has been one of the most surprising parts of the evolution of OWN IT?

Kendall: I think the most surprising thing has been the reaction that we’ve gotten. People have really taken the conversation and amplified it. This started as a series of small conversations between us and a few other people and it has now grown into something that has included all of Georgetown but also all these other schools across the country. We have 6 other schools in 2015 holding OWN IT summits, the summit at Boston College is actually happening the week after our own summit, they’re all using our model, so it’s kind of a greater community. We also have 23 different schools coming to be represented at our summit, so I think the most surprising thing has been the response – people want to have this conversation and it wasn’t just us that wanted to have it, so that’s really cool to see.

Vox: Are there any aspects of this year’s summit that you’re especially excited about that may not have been part of last year’s summit?

Helen: Our speaker lineup. We’ve had a year to reflect, and this year for example we have a 13 year old, she’s a voting rights advocate, so it’s kind of like there’s this whole different perspective. We have a panel called the identity panel full of different women talking about how their identity as a female isn’t just singular, they have identities in other parts of their lives, and they’ve worked that into their careers. We really have a diversity of speakers in terms of sector, age, race, everything, I’m actually a little more excited this year than I was last year.

Kendall: We have experiential sessions too which are office hours, workshops, and break out sessions, covering such a broad array of topics. These experiential sessions were almost like an after thought last year but this year it is such a priority to get really exceptional speakers in those sessions. We’re trying to accommodate a diversity of interests too in those sessions. So, we have everything from women in military service to women in fashion, journalism and PR – this year you can make everything so tailored to your interests.

Vox: Do feel like at Georgetown there aren’t enough conversations happening about empowering women?

Kendall: I think in general it’s easy to call OWN IT a women empowerment conference, but we really have this averse reaction to saying “empowerment,” and just because for us, we’re already empowered, and there are plenty of women here who already feel that. I feel like for us it’s really the leadership component that’s important. We want to tailor the conversation to actual tangible things that people can take and be a better leader for other people instead of just like “Rah, girl power, we’re so I great,” which I think we hear a lot.

Helen: I think a lot of times these events are about women and girls empowered and uplifted by those greater people above them and that’s not really what it’s about – it’s an exchange of advice and ideas to equalize the playing field. We like to say that we create this environment that doesn’t necessarily exist in the real world, a space where you can wear whatever you want, not be embarrassed to ask a question, approach a CEO of a huge company and it’s totally normal.

Kendall: I think we have a of girls at Georgetown already who have created an incredible dialogue about sexual assault, women’s issues, health relating to women, violence against women, all of those things, body image issues, and we totally admire and respect all of them. So I do think there is a lot of stuff going on in positive ways, but I think that this is a totally separate conversation about leadership and I think GU Women in Leadership brings part of this, GU Women of Color brings part of this, there are a bunch of other groups of campus that brings this conversation to our campus that is similar to what we’re doing.

Vox: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing college aged women today that are specific to their gender?

Kendall: I mean, I think you would have to poll more college aged women than us, but I think in general it’s finding people in those areas and those fields that you’re interested in to talk to, who want to talk to you, want to help you. I think that we’ve been trying to find that, and we want to bring that to everyone else and make sure that everyone else is able to find that too, because I think that’s one of the scariest parts of graduating, like how do you get your first job? You see people like Savannah Guthrie from the Today Show or Norah O’Donnell, I’m just citing random people, and you’re like, how did they get that job? That’s the peak of their career, but they had a first job, what did that look like? So I think that’s always a question in my mind.

Helen: I think for me, the idea of speaking up about feeling less than, or being talked over, or being quiet, or being interrupted, sort of like these daily things that you don’t want to make a big deal out of are a big challenge. I think we’re still in this age of like “Oh I’m just gonna sit back” and, you’re an outlier if you say, “Excuse me, you just talked over me, six men in the room, please stop.” We’re not demonizing men, but I think these things happen to people, and for younger women, if you stand up in the room, you’re the feminist and everyone thinks you’re crazy. I think we’re polarized a lot at this age

Vox: What have been the biggest obstacles for you in creating and sustaining OWN IT?

Helen: Including a lot of voices. I think it’s easy to do something that’s really specific and it’s harder to do something that’s even more vague. I know it should sound like the opposite, but I actually think that if we had just picked one sector, it might have been be a little easier.

Kendall: I think another one of the struggles is growing pains. From last year to this year, our team has tripled. You have to learn how to manage a major team and that wasn’t something we did as much last year. Also, I think expectations; Helen and I definitely feel pressure to bring something that’s awesome. Additionally, just the concept of having 800 people here (laugher), just, logistically, that’s a nightmare. And, another challenge, Helen and I trying to find different leaders in different industries, we probably sent out a disgusting amount of invitations – maybe 175 – and got a disgusting amount of rejections –

Helen: And those rejections always pain you a little, like, why? We asked you a year in advance, but then you get people who are like, heck yeah, I’m coming for the whole day, I’m there, I’m bringing my kids, I’m sitting in the front row with my wife.

Helen: And I think this is a little Meta, but another challenge, I also think students are like all the time, “Is this just an event? What is this?” We would like to be able to measure our impact to say what the outcome is, how many girls are going to go out there and ask for a raise in their job, go find a mentor, or be candid in class, but it’s hard to get tangible measurements, so I think we’re actually wondering sometimes what our actual impact can be.

Vox: Are there any last things you want to add about what you’re excited for or your experiences so far?

Kendall: I think my final piece is that Helen and I have been consistently blown away and thankful for the support and encouragement of the Georgetown community. We work really closely with a lot of different offices and it’s been amazing to have this kind of support from our school, we feel lucky to go here and be doing this.

Helen: For one, we’re actually live streaming it this year on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, which has a potential audience of 100,000 people, which is awesome. But, It’s awesome that Georgetown isn’t just like “Okay, cool, hope it goes well,” but they’re actively like, “What can we help you with?” Not, “Oh my god, 800 feminists are going to be running around the room, I’m scared.”

Photo: OWN IT

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