The Women in Leadership Program Gets Going with a Virtual Retreat

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The semester begins soon, and the Women in Leadership Fellows will be hard at work developing personal projects that will make a difference in the world. Many have already started, and those that haven’t look to their peers for inspiration. On Saturday, the program’s Fellows, coordinators, and volunteers met for a virtual retreat to discuss the work ahead.

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Asha Rao
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Chitra Nayak
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Rupal Hollenbeck
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Lynn Bowes-Sperry

Program Director Dr. Asha Rao asked the faculty and volunteers of WIL to introduce themselves. Dr. Rao herself has 30 years in academia under her belt, and says she’s thrown herself into building a Women in Leadership program at Cal State East Bay “because I feel like there’s a strong need for this where we are.”

Chitra Nayak, along with Dr. Rao, co-created and co-teaches the Women in Leadership class. A veteran of industry, she co-founded the South Asian professional women’s network Neythri.

Rupal Hollenbeck has an MBA in International Management and has worked in the US, Singapore, and China. She’s worked for 25 years in the high tech industry, and will be co-teaching this year’s Management 400 course for undergraduates.

Lynn Bowes-Sperry is a new faculty member at East Bay with 25 years in academia. Her current area of research is what she calls “giving voice to values — you see some sketchy stuff going on at work, what do you do about it?”

Penny Peak is Development Director for the College of Business and Economics. In her words, “I reach out to engage alumni and friends of the college, to involve them as volunteers and often donors.” She’s had great success recruiting outstanding women alumni as guest speakers, and is working to fund the program through donations and corporate sponsorships.

Sonal Chandna is an alumna both of CSU East Bay and of the original Women in Leadership program, where her project with Neythri progressed into an ongoing professional relationship. She’s returned to share her experience and guidance with this year’s upcoming Fellows.

Finally, I introduced myself. My name is Amanda Gaal, I’m a 2020 grad with a degree in Theatre, and I’ll be writing articles like this one to keep you updated on everything that goes on in the Women in Leadership program. I’ve also offered my services as an editor and writing coach for the Fellows as they embark on this journey.

With introductions complete, Dr. Rao spoke about the Women in Leadership courses that Fellows will be taking as part of the program. The courses — one for undergraduates and one for graduates — are open to other students as well, but the WIL Fellows will be expected to take the lead. “You set the tone for a lot of things,” Dr. Rao said, “so we really anticipate you being on top of your work.” Fellows will be expected to attend as many of the 20 guest speakers as possible. At the same time, their final exam will be waived — to make space for the social impact project they’ll have on their plate.

The group split into two Zoom rooms to dive into the undergraduate and graduate courses respectively. I was able to listen in on the graduate group, led by Ms. Nayak. Meeting one day a week, the class will explore topics including the ‘state of the union’ of women in the workplace, an overview of leadership theory, and the challenge of creating equitable organizations. Students will work on developing themselves as leaders, as well as learning the best practices that exist already in the business world.

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Sonal Chandna

Following the course discussions, attendees were split into new breakout rooms to get to know each other and, for the Fellows, to share their ideas so far on what they might pursue for their social impact projects. The Fellows spoke about what inspired them to action — whether they already had a concrete plan in place, or were still figuring out their angle.

Once the full group reconvened, Dr. Rao introduced a tool that will help Fellows turn their plans into action: the scope document. It’s a precise method of tracking progress and goals — one of the ways the program hopes to support Fellows with more structure than in previous years.

Dr. Rao gave the floor to Ms. Chandna, who walked us through the scope document she had used when she executed her own social impact project: interviewing C-suite South Asian women leaders for Neythri. She explained, “The scope document outlines all the work that’s required for the project: it includes parameters like purpose of the project, your on-the-way tasks, final deliverables, and any factors that define our project’s success.” One of her biggest pieces of advice? “Set a schedule. Schedule check-in calls with your mentor or discussion meetings with the stakeholders at regular intervals, so that all are on the same page. It does not matter if there are delays — just let them know. It only simplifies the process.”

The attendees split off into breakout rooms again — to get to know each other, and to take a moment and relax. Fellows shared worries and offered encouragement about the exciting, demanding program ahead. Graduate Fellow Ana Bostick shared a comment when the group reconvened. “I really appreciate today — I feel like it was really a true retreat. I felt like I was kind of floating in space with the whole Women in Leadership program, I didn’t really know what to expect, and I feel like I have a better handle on that now. And so while it may be a little terrifying,” she joked, “I also feel like I know what to be terrified about.”

For more information on the program, please visit Women in Leadership Program, CBE.

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