Dr. Jill Biden speaks at sold-out East Bay Women’s Conference
By Lou Fancher
At the East Bay Women’s Conference March 5, the paradigm of women in leadership shifted. Talk of “woulda, coulda, shoulda” leadership was out; real- life examples of what women have done, are doing and are determined to do more often were in.
Presented by the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau with primary partners John Muir Health and Stanford Children’s Health and other sponsors, the event held at the San Ramon Marriott sells out annually. Keynote speaker and former second lady Dr. Jill Biden and featured speakers addressed more than 500 Bay Area corporate and nonprofit leaders, entrepreneurs, small business owners, working professionals and mothers. Attendance was predominantly women, although men are welcome and a handful appear each year. Professional development workshops, casual networking, vendor exhibitions and a festive closing reception offered opportunities to fortify established relationships and forge new connections.
Whereas in past years the focus was on obtaining or finding balance within positions of power, the 13th annual conference illustrated new momentum. As always, stories women shared about what caused them to attend — or why a speaker or presenter chose a topic to highlight — were rooted in personal experiences and philosophies. Notably, women struggle, suffer, persevere and best overcome obstacles in the same way that men do: collectively. Personal stories embedded in presentations throughout the day — from two-time Olympic pentathlete Marilyn King’s rousing peace advocacy to sessions on structuring financial success to Biden’s robust, upbeat message — were characterized by confidence and hope. Energized by urgency, women spoke not just about desired change, but about making it happen.
Biden began by acknowledging three Rosie the Riveter-era “sheroes” seated prominently near the podium. “We must never forget the path you forged for us,” Biden said.
With three decades as a community college English professor and having earned two master’s degrees and a PhD while working full-time and raising her family, Biden said during the eight years her husband, Joe Biden, was U.S. vice president, “Politics was just one part of the equation. He had a job to do, and so did I.”
Teaching and working with single moms and underserved communities to provide access to college education mixed with state dinners hosted by “the most powerful man on earth (President Barak Obama).” She said those years were the best of her life, but not easy. Asking how many women were single moms, working women — or just plain exhausted — appreciative laughter preceded Biden’s upswing remarks that outlined groundbreaking educational accomplishments made by the Biden Breast Health Initiative and the importance of women’s contributions irregardless of scale. “Dare to be powerful,” she said. “Your voice can change the conversation.”
Diablo Valley College business professor Carolyn Seefer said 22 years as a community college professor provided connection to Biden.
“When I had my picture taken with her, I thanked her for her contributions to community college education.”
Indeed, Biden’s “Where the Light Enters” presentation gave strong support to community colleges’ smaller class sizes, economic savings and top-level instruction. Seefer says as a woman in business, a field still considered by some people today as a man’s world, she never experienced bias. Even so, she said, “I make sure my women students know there are leadership positions for them and to not let anyone hold them back.”
Lisa Norman, whose Walnut Creek-based nonprofit, The Love of Cups, educates women about available breast cancer health care resources, said being the conference’s honored recipient of a portion of proceeds from a raffle was invaluable.
“The support and exposure will allow women to share their stories, to let others know mammograms are not one-size-fits-all, to save themselves and their daughters from succumbing to cancer,” Norman said.
Whether told by women or men, stories of pain and paths to victory were common. Pleasant Hill resident Cindy Buscaglia, a certified spiritual instructor, said people regardless of gender are deeply wounded by illnesses, political divisiveness and seek purpose. Accessibility of speakers at the conference and “feeling ignited, every time I attend,” Buscaglia said provides encouragement to “stay on track.”
The majority of women asked (18 out 20), said inequitable pay is the biggest workplace hurdle women continue to face. Ray Roach, an account manager with NESC Staffing Corp, said women at the conference were asking different questions in 2018. “They’re asking about our vetting process for administration workers. To me, that means they’re hiring people to assist them. They’re in position of power, not just seeking them.”
Perhaps one moment more than any other at the conference spoke to a sea change as women work collectively for change. Yvonne Huggins-McLean is involved with Oakland-based Allen Temple Baptist Church’s homeless ministry. Catching King alone, she invited her to speak at the church. “We can’t have a generation of children unable to be educated, adults with addiction problems left untreated, people left to fend for themselves. Women have to step up for these people: they’re our families, our neighbors, part of our communities,” she said.
King, who advises fortune 500 companies and twice addressed the United Nations about global responsibility said, without pause, “It would be an honor to come. Temple is a stalwart of strength. I’m an ordinary person, but found an Olympian inside. I know there’s an Olympian in each of us. Encouraging people is everything. Call me.”