Evening & Weekend WBA member Zareen Khan (E&W 2023) shares the importance of building strong female networks and choosing to challenge the idea of competition.

Women Supporting Women: In a Virtual World & Beyond

By Zareen Khan (E&W 2023)

Beyonce’s “Run the World” (a top hit on most “women’s empowerment” playlists) filled the ballroom, along with 100 or so female legislators and leaders from both sides of the aisle, as I prepared the Governor and First Lady to take stage and welcome and wish everyone a happy Women’s History Month. With “Women’s Empower-Mint Mojitos” and “Long Island Iced Equali-Teas” on the menu, planning last year’s Women’s History Month celebration looked a lot different than this year’s, though the themes of unity, collaboration and women supporting women held constant.

On Saturday, March 6, 2021, Kellogg’s Evening & Weekend Women’s Business Association and The University of Chicago Booth School of Business’ Graduate Women in Business came together to host what was presumed to be the first, joint Women’s History Month celebration.

This event, marking almost one year since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, stemmed from early conversations when the groups came together to discuss how to adapt and maintain a strong and supportive community for female students in a virtual world. And given no shortage of challenges that the last year has presented, particularly for women, the need to bring truly valuable programming to students felt even greater. What resulted was “Together We #ChoosetoChallenge,” the virtual event that brought together female students and allies to challenge the idea of “competition” between Chicago’s top business schools.

Together we #choosetochallenge

“While we know there may be some friendly rivalry between our schools, we realize that we can accomplish so much more if we work together…” was the sentiment that kicked off the March 6th event. And, after the invisible veil of “competition” was lifted, the intentional collaboration demonstrated its strength. After brief banter between WBA and GWIB, we heard from powerful women like: Co-founder and CEO of Bonfire and Kellogg Professor, Suzanne Muchin; CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, Dr Helene Gayle; and CEO of 1871, Betsy Ziegler, just to name a few. They shared personal insights and anecdotes and bestowed wisdom on the next generation of female leaders and allies. With a goal of bridging the gap between schools, students shared personal experiences and reflections with one another in breakout rooms. And, a MORS-inspired exercise, the final breakout room was centered on finding ways to help one another achieve his or her aspirations.

Sporting “Strong Female Lead” across my shirt next to “Ambitious” across Jordan’s, we concluded with a call to action: keep the conversations going. Aside from a few new LinkedIn connections and a renewed sense of inspiration after hearing this group of powerful women share their keys to success, I left (by left, I mean logged off Zoom) the event feeling motivated to continue challenging the idea of competition, not just across school lines, but between all women.

Co-chairs from the WBA and GWIB.

Where do we go from here?

To not just lean in but to also lean on your network was a token of advice that was shared during the event, reinforcing our intention to provide students with an opportunity to expand and strengthen their networks. Whether extending a hand across invisible barriers, furthering existing relationships or deepening bonds as a mentor or mentee, as powerful women at a world-renowned school, we are all uniquely positioned to lift one another up, and we shouldn’t leave the potential untapped.

In her book “Wolfpack” (which I aptly received as a gift from my mentor), FIFA Women’s World Cup champion Abby Wambach draws on lessons learned during her time on the field (and the bench) to propose a new set of “rules” for women to live by, rules that will help women unleash their individual power and the power of their “pack,” ultimately transforming the landscape for women. Rule #5 is “Champion Each Other,” contesting the idea that being for each other is a zero-sum game. It’s not. One woman’s success does not take away from another’s, and by genuinely supporting one another, we can rise together.

Offering a nuanced perspective on ways in which she chooses to challenge, Professor Muchin gave weight to the everyday gestures and daily work that goes into creating new conditions for women — conditions that give way for women to show up and challenge the status quo. It is up to each and every one of us to put in the work every day and live the change we want to see for ourselves, each other, and those who follow.

Whether we came to Kellogg to shift, amplify or launch in our careers, what we have in common is that we are the next generation of leaders and we stand at a critical juncture in history; a time when women are leaving the workforce at staggering rates, women are disproportionately bearing the burden of COVID’s impact on life at home, and progress made on gender equality is fragile and at the point of regression. This year has served as a reminder that we, as women, need to keep showing up and putting in the work to create the conditions in which all women have an equitable chance at success.

Spurring collaboration across the aisle or across school lines, we can go further together. And whether you’re challenging yourself, each other, or the status quo, we need to continue challenging the invisible constructs that stand between us and lift each other up.

How will you choose to challenge?