Women’s Leadership Conference in Myrtle Beach to teach, connect, celebrate women

02/04/2013 7:14 PM

02/05/2013 9:44 AM

Hundreds of women, and a few men, will converge on the Sheraton Myrtle Beach Convention Center Hotel Thursday and Friday to network, enhance their personal and professional skills, and celebrate individual achievement.

“Lead the Change” is the theme for the 2013 Women’s Leadership Conference and Celebration of Inspiring Women, the third annual event hosted by Coastal Carolina University’s Women in Philanthropy and Leadership organization. The conference will offer programs where women can connect and learn to move forward with leadership opportunities.

“The gist of the whole conference is to encourage and empower,” said Terri DeCenzo, the event’s chief planner, who said the event began as a way to involve the community and students with real-life mentoring and female leadership. “Women do have a lot to offer, and when women succeed, the community will thrive and prosper.”

In its first year, 300 people attended the one-day event, which was expanded to two days last year. Attendance rose to 450, but DeCenzo said it was a little too long, so this year’s event has been scaled back a bit to include a half-day Small Business Boot Camp in addition to Friday’s conference.

The boot camp will focus on entrepreneurship and feature speakers Eileen Soisson, president and owner of The Meeting Institute; Stella Mercado, president and chief executive officer of Mercom Corp.; and Susan Walvius, co-founder of SHEEX Inc., who was women’s head basketball coach at the University of South Carolina from 1997-2008. Participants will be able to choose from one of three breakout sessions to attend, led by other business leaders and entrepreneurs, and a networking reception will follow the event.

“We have a lot of incredible, female entrepreneurs, and the workshops are dedicated to them to give them practical advice,” DeCenzo said.

Friday’s conference will be filled with breakout sessions and a variety of speakers, including the day’s featured speaker, Mercedes Ramirez Johnson. DeCenzo said she wanted Johnson on the conference roster after her husband, CCU President David DeCenzo, heard her speak at a national conference.

“He thought she was one of the most compelling speakers he’d ever heard, and when he says that, I listen,” she said.

Johnson was one of only four survivors of American Airlines Flight 965, which crashed into the Andes Mountains near Cali, Colombia, in December 1995. She was traveling with her parents, who died in the crash, and months later, she said her speaking career began when she was asked to share her story for the first time with a youth group.

“Speaking just snowballed into a profession,” Johnson said. “I thought it makes sense if this plane crash can actually help people, knowing everything happens for a reason. I meet interesting, amazing people. I’m supposed to be the one to inspire, but normally, I leave more inspired.”

Johnson said she speaks to all types of groups – sometimes it’s 500 people in hard hats, sometimes it’s 500 ladies in high heels – but her message is about being fully engaged in life. She said no one knows what tomorrow will bring, and it is important for people to live in the moment and “get busy being happy.”

“There’s always an excuse, but sometimes you have to make it happen for yourself,” Johnson said. “I am energized and excited about meeting the women, and men, who are attending [Friday], and together, we can walk away with a new lease on life.”

The celebration dinner Friday evening will recognize five women who have strong ties to South Carolina and have made a positive impact in the state, nation or world. This year’s honorees are Rebecca Wesson Darwin, president and CEO of the media company that owns Garden & Gun magazine; Muriel O’Tuel, educator and professional speaker; the Honorable Elizabeth Johnston Patterson, who served three terms in the U.S. Congress; opera star Sarah Reese; and the Honorable Jean Hoefer Toll, chief justice of the Supreme Court of South Carolina.

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