About 470 people heard a variety of speakers – from the business world to the inspirational – give messages of empowerment for life during the third annual Women’s Leadership Conference Friday at the Sheraton Myrtle Beach Convention Center Hotel.
“Lead the Change” was hosted by Coastal Carolina University’s Women in Philanthropy and Leadership organization. The conference is designed to offer programs where women, and men, can connect and learn to move forward with leadership opportunities.
The conference was preceded for the first time Thursday by a Small Business Boot Camp, a half-day of workshops that focused on entrepreneurship. The event featured speakers and breakout sessions, followed by a networking reception.
Beth Stedman, coordinator of women’s initiatives and community engagement at CCU, said the boot camp was “fabulous,” drawing more than 100 people. She said it exceeded expectations and could very well return next year.
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Those who attended Friday’s conference heard featured speakers in the morning, along with a panel discussion on advancing women’s roles in the workplace. The panel included Alexis Glick, chief executive officer, GENYOUth Foundation; Colleen Johnston, group head, finance, and chief financial officer of TD Bank Group; Michael Clayton, partner, Morgan Lewis; John Keyser, founder and CEO, Common Sense Leadership; and Joe Moglia, CCU head football coach and chairman of the board, TD Ameritrade.
Breakout sessions followed on several topics, with some more business-related, on finance and negotiation, while others focused on personal change. Motivational speaker Donna Tyson, who has appeared at all three conferences, drew a crowd at her session called “Letting It All Go.” The former Myrtle Beach resident drew tears and laughter as she described her journey since last August, when she got rid of all her material possessions to move to Haiti as a full-time missionary with her brother for the program Until the Whole World Knows.
“I’d worked hard to be a successful businesswoman, but I always had a sense there’s something more,” said Tyson, who urged audience members to use their gifts wisely.
CCU freshman Alina Tananova and graduate student Ekaterina Dandykina said they really loved the breakout sessions and had attended one conducted by Glick. Tananova said she was amazed just to hear how Glick juggles a high-powered career with having three children.
“We love to hear all the stories,” Dandykina said. “This is a great opportunity to hear so many successful people.”
The day’s keynote speaker was Mercedes Ramirez Johnson, who was one of only four survivors of American Airlines Flight 965, which crashed into the Andes Mountains near Cali, Colombia, in December 1995. Johnson was traveling with her parents, who died in the crash, and spent two months in the hospital recovering from internal and spinal injuries.
Now a wife and mother of four, Johnson told the audience about her ordeal and how it was her biggest life-defining moment, but she said everyone has obstacles that have the power to flip over their lives. She warned against “losing situational awareness,” and drew parallels between mistakes the pilots made on her ill-fated flight – skipping protocols, flying without a plan, going off course gradually – and mistakes people make by just living in survival mode and going through the motions in real life.
“Live life like you mean it,” said Johnson, who said she is living what she learned with her 4-year-old twins, who were born with a rare condition and a short life expectancy. “Find that thing you will fight for – persevere with a fighting spirit.”
A Celebration of Inspiring Women dinner was planned for Friday evening to 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.