The Women’s Leadership Society seeks to provide the women of USC with guidance and the ability to network and bond with other women who share their same curiosity about the impact of technology on a variety of consumer-facing industries.
Founded by Chris Smith, professor of the professional practice, in 2013, and now led by undergraduate co-directors Celestine Yeh and Lauren Bickford, WLS has grown to 125 members. Celestine Yeh and Lauren Bickford talk about the program.
What is the Women’s Leadership Society?
CY: The Women’s Leadership Society’s mission is to help empower women in tech, media and entertainment by bringing in guest speakers from those different industries to talk about their careers. It’s not every day you get to be in a really intimate setting and ask some pretty frank questions about what's happening within each of these industries. Our conversations are often centered around the female experience and the challenges females may face in higher level positions.
LB: Not all of our speakers are USC Annenberg alumni, but a lot of them are, and USC alums are really proud of the school and want to come back to campus and share their career path. I think it’s that connection that provides a two-way road for mentorship. The student gets to meet that person, learn from them, but also the alumni are really excited to learn from the students and hear about what’s happening on campus now.
What are the various ways WLS provides support for the professional advancement of women?
LB: All of our events are focused on providing students with the opportunity to see successful women talk about their experiences and how they got to where they are. Sometimes, it’s more advice-driven, such as when young Annenberg alumni come back and talk about the opportunities they took advantage of at USC — or point out resources they wish they had taken advantage of while they were here.
Other times, we have bigger, more inspirational events. In January, Nely Galán, the first female Latina president of Telemundo, came to talk to a student audience. She discussed her book, Self Made, which was written around the movement to be a self-made woman who advocates for other women to create their own image and control their destiny.
CY: Another key goal for these events is for the members to network with the speakers. Students can individually approach the speakers afterward, get business cards and ask any follow-up questions. It’s experiences like those you can’t get elsewhere.
What drew you each personally to WLS?
CY: I started attending the Women’s Leadership events during the spring semester of my sophomore year when they had the Young Alumni Series. They brought in alums from the three industries to talk about their careers and gave advice on how to market yourself in a professional setting. I had also just finished reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. The book really enlightened me. I asked Chris Smith if I could get more involved in the organization, as I wanted to learn more about how to empower myself and also help empower other females. This whole process of going from the young alumni events and being offered this leadership position, knowing that I can help women who deserve to work in these various industries, was a perfect match for me.
LB: While attending a Bay Area Maymester two years ago, I was blown away by the companies we got to visit and all the innovation occurring. But, throughout our visits, I also saw a huge gender gap in the workforce. I knew I was passionate about working in tech, but wanted to make sure I could see myself and other women like me in those rooms. After working with Chris Smith on the Maymester, he asked me to be part of WLS. I felt that it was the perfect way to help women build self-confidence and let them know they have a place in industries they want to work in.
Do you have any events that aren't speaker-based?
LB: We also have members-only, community building events. This is more of a casual setting where a group of women meet up, we might go to a restaurant or have a movie night; or, we might just sit together and talk. That’s our time to really get to know one another and build a deeper connection with other women in the group. What we hope to build is a peer-to-peer network of like-minded women who all care deeply for one another and who care about the same issues.
CY: I think within the speaker events, too, a lot of our members try to go to each one. So, once you start seeing the familiar faces, you’re like, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen you at this event.” Then it gets the ball rolling on building authentic relationships with your female peers.
How did your work at WLS add value to your USC Annenberg experience?
LB: WLS gave me the chance to be a leader and helped me develop my leadership philosophy. My personal definition of leadership is empowering others, which is exactly what I have been able to do through WLS events. I am proud to say that I have helped connect my peers to alumni and help make the Trojan Family real to USC students.
CY: My time with WLS has allowed me to be a better leader, gain more confidence and improve my critical thinking skills. I was never a good public speaker. Taking on this role gave me the opportunity to get stronger, as I was often in front of audiences, helping guide the conversation. Being on stage also helped me become adaptable in situations you sometimes can’t control.
What does the future hold for you and for WLS?
LB: After graduation, I’m going to work at LinkedIn in San Francisco. I’m excited to use the data from the biggest professional network to see where there are women lacking in different industries and figure out how I can be part of the solution to the gender disparity as well as the wage gap.
CY: It was basically just us two for the past two years. We had to wear a lot of different hats. We did everything from logistics and planning to executing events. We researched, found and brought in speakers, arranged for the rooms, flowers, food, photographer, curated questions, and interviewed the speakers.
We’ve both learned so much and now we’re excited that we can pass our experiences on to a very bright executive team. We are expanding our leadership to include three new vice-presidents: external events, community building and social media. We can’t wait to see where the new executive board takes the organization!
WLS is an approachable, inviting and inclusive community. They accept new applications for membership at the beginning of every fall and spring semester.