Pink Fall Event 2021

We are at a turning point. We now have this window of opportunity to reimagine the workplace and our role in it. Women at work and their organizations are at a crossroads. 

Many of America’s most powerful business leaders have been hard hit by the pandemic along with the rest of us. And they too are reevaluating what works and what doesn’t—at home and at the office. Some of these leaders shared their very personal experiences at PINK’s recent, 17th Annual Fall Empowerment Event, broadcasted from Atlanta. 

Watch the video:

As we know, the Covid crisis has hit working women hard—and women leaders are not exempt. The Coca-Cola Company’s Global Chief People Officer, Lisa Chang, found out her mother had breast cancer during the pandemic. Luckily, she had the flexibility she needed to care for her mother. She told about 900 women and men watching via live-stream and in person at the InterContinental Buckhead Atlanta hotel on October 18th, “One thing the pandemic gave us was the ability to juggle the work demands in a remote environment. Essentially, I moved in and lived with [my mother] during her cancer treatment. There is no other situation in my current role that would have afforded me the opportunity to do that.” 

The speakers’ honesty and candor drew tears, applause, and laughter from those watching around the world. And the speakers were emotional too. 

Heather Robertson Fortner, Partner, and CEO of SignatureFD, with nearly $6 Billion in assets under management, shared she has an immunocompromised child at home, and she is 30 weeks pregnant with her second child. She choked up saying, “what mattered most to me was my family.”

Heather acknowledged, as so few leaders do in public, “I can’t do this by myself,” saying she depends on support from her husband and people at work. “I couldn’t control what was happening in the world. I couldn’t control what was happening with my own family.

Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer at Walmart Inc., Donna Morris acknowledged it hasn’t been easy. “Don’t be hard on yourself. On any given day I’m not sure if I’m doing an A job or a C job—I’m going to keep on going.”

She said, “The pandemic put everyone on edge. Everyone at some point has felt very vulnerable. It has never been more important to be human and care about each other.” 

The PINK event conversation focused on what women and organizations can, and must, do now to move forward in the best way possible. This is crucial since three in five women employees say they fear their prospects of getting a promotion are worse in this new work environment, according to Catalyst. 

Deloitte US Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer, Kavitha Prabhakar talked about the Great Reset. “After 23 years being on the road, we had such a shift, a great reset in terms of family and health. People really need human connection.”

And Lisa urged attendees to step up and take on projects they want, and be visible. Donna added, “Set goals. Look for continuous feedback from managers and peers. Set expectations for your own growth and development. Declare where you want to go.”

Then there’s the issue of self-care in a work world that feels like it demands women step up 24/7. Jay Caiafa, Chief Operating Officer, IHG Hotels & Resorts, the lone male on the panel, said he sees women taking on too much. He would know. His wife Meredith, who attended the PINK event with her team, is a Partner at Morris, Manning & Martin LLP. “Forget about doing 120%,” Jay said. “You’ll keep asking yourself to give more and more until you break.” Instead, enlist support and say, “If you lose me, it’s a big deal.”

Kavitha added, “But it’s important to know flexibility is part of the equation moving forward. Giving each other grace has been a great theme.” 

Donna agreed, “Flexibility is the way to go.” And she put some pressure on companies to change, saying workers, and women especially, need employers to meet them where they are. “Flexibility is defined by each individual.” She says organizations will have to be more flexible if they want to retain women especially. “I believe we need to meet employees and associates where they are.” That’s quite a challenge for a company like hers. Walmart has some 2,500,000 employees. But Donna says she believes significant change is possible. “Instead of it being the Great Resignation, can it not be the Great Reassessment!? We are all going to need to do that to retain the diversity we all seek to have within our workplaces.”

Heather said when she became CEO of SignatureFD she had “this belief— I couldn’t have another kid. Then I asked, ‘who told you that? You’re 45 years old and you’re the CEO! You go home and have that baby.’” The baby is due at the end of this year. “This is going to be tricky,” she acknowledged. But she and her family are up to the challenge. 

Tricky for sure, 70 percent of global companies are not prioritizing women’s advancement according to processionals in an IBM survey. The IBM study also cited the fatigue and waning optimism that comes with a heightened awareness of the ongoing lack of women and minorities in leadership jobs, along with often ineffective efforts to address inequity; the study referenced fewer women in leadership pipelines.

The reality is women overall are not getting what they want at work. News headlines, like the one for an article written by AJC columnist and PINK event moderator Nedra Rhone asks: Should [the] wall between our personal, professional lives come down?

And a piece by Vikki Lockeboth quoting PINK, is titled, Why are Women Climbing Down the Corporate Ladder? Women are rethinking what’s important and many are asking, is climbing that ladder really worth it? 

Donna emphasized, “Women have been disproportionately leaving the workforce.” 

To address this, Kavitha said, “We need to talk about unlearning. Speak up about the way things are done and ask why do we have to keep doing it this way?” 

The speakers acknowledged their personal responsibility as leaders to think differently and review and revise outdated policies. “We can drive a lot of change. We need to find new ways. Going back to the way things were is not a recipe for success. Let’s drive change together,” said Donna.

The responsibility also falls on working women themselves to shift old habits and antiquated thinking. Imposter syndrome still has us questioning ourselves too often said the speakers. And each admitted, even at their level, they do it too! Moderator and Atlanta Journal-Constitution Columnist Nedra Rhone said she did not negotiate her contract. “I didn’t negotiate my salary though I had written about it a lot.” Jay told the crowd, “Asking for what you want is a learned skill.” 

Kavitha acknowledged these are hard but essential conversations to have. What gives her fortitude? “I do it for myself, but I’m also doing it for the generations to come. That’s a great way to get courage.”

Donna suggested finding someone at work who understands you and your professional and personal goals. Instead of shooting for a particular role or title, “Go for what you’re interested in.” She emphasized, and “You don’t have to be ‘ready’ before you raise your hand.”

Lisa reminded the crowd, “Others who raise their hand may have half the experience but twice the confidence.” She said she did not pursue specific opportunities. What worked for her? Chasing “experiences not titles or roles. Think through things that exist and inspire you and you will end up in the position you were meant to have.”

All of the women on the panel agreed the big watch out, even for these most powerful women in business, is negative self-talk. Said Lisa, “Oh my gosh, they’re going to figure out I’m not up to the task.” She learned, “it’s not about solving all the problems, it’s the journey. We all have things to contribute.” Heather added, “Your job is not to solve all the problems, it’s to get the person in the room who can.” 

Heather admitted she experiences the Imposter Syndrome as well. She too found a way to deal with it. “Ask yourself, who told you that? Who are you going to believe? The voice telling you you’re not enough? Find the voice that can speak the truth.”

Kavitha added, “We are always leaders in training. It is a continuous journey.” She says she visualizes a gremlin on her shoulder and every so often “I shoo the gremlin away.”

And America’s first black female combat pilot, Vernice Armour, known as “FlyGirl”, spoke up from the audience emphasizing the importance of being authentic; wearing your hair natural as an example. She acknowledged the risk of doing it while asking, “Are we going to assimilate, or integrate—bringing who we are with us? That’s a gutsy decision. Diversity isn’t going to be our strength if we aren’t strong enough to bring who we are [to work]. If we don’t who will?”

Donna says she has found it is less exhausting to be a leader “the more vulnerable you are. Be open to talk about your challenges.” Today she has a 24-year-old son. “I look back and think, why did I always have to be the superhero?!”

But, if you’re still too scared to do what you know you need to do on your own behalf, heed these words of wisdom Kavitha shared, quoting Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis: “If you’re afraid to jump, jump afraid.”


On A Personal Note—

Changes in the world were evident even in the exhibitor area where PINK’s longtime vendors offered makeup and hair touch-ups from Blo. Jewels With a Purpose redesigned packaging to feature butterflies, knowing we’ve been through a chrysalis.

It takes all of us to instigate change. We could not have these conversations without our sponsor’s generosity and commitment to diversity. Special thanks to Cox Enterprises, Delta Air LinesSouthern CompanyThe Home Depot, Inspire Brands, The Coca-Cola Company, SignatureFD (and SignatureExec and SignatureWOMEN), Atlanta Homes and Lifestyles, and Deloitte for sponsoring this event. It was broadcast by Presentations. 

I’m wondering… now that you know this…. what will you do? If you’re a leader, will you institute flex schedules that work for individual employees? Will you or won’t you continue to support dialogues like this? As an individual, will you be true to yourself? Will you have that baby? Will you pick your kid up from school, step up for assignments you want? Will you wear your hair naturally? Will you negotiate for what you want even though it terrifies you? Will you ask yourself, “who said that?!” when you hear that critical internal voice? Whose voice will you listen to—the one that says “you can’t, you’re not up to the challenge, you’re not enough;” or the one that says, “If not now—when? If not you, then whom? And, why the ‘f’ not!?” What will you settle for? Where will you draw the line? Will you, even when you’re afraid, dare to jump—to “Jump afraid”?

I’m wishing that for all of us.

Don’t try to squelch the fear. It’s a part of the whole journey and that fear can guide you and sit with you. I think you begin to make peace with it. You understand, you know what, the reason you’re afraid is because you understand how hard it is. Everyone can be brave and bold. –Viola Davis, Actress


The Live-Stream Audience Weighed In:

Amy Sullivan: “I suffered from needing to always be ready with the answer in order to be ‘worthy’ of my role. It’s not the case. The people in charge don’t have all the answers either. Work is an opportunity to come together and collaborate on a solution.”

Lauren Davin: “Wow – love this. Going to use the “who told you that?””

Jonelle Brown: “This is speaking to my inner self. Love this discussion.”

Liz Smith: “This is helpful, encouraging to know that even top leaders have to go through these same challenges and self-talk.”

Harriet White: “We’re all human, same issues, no matter the pay grade!”

Joyce Auskelis: “I like the concept of following your curiosity.”

Aileen Vargas: “[Lisa said,] ‘Don’t let a good pandemic go to waste!’ luv it :)”

Crystal Mathis: “Love the convo on natural hair. FlyGirl! Assimilation vs integration. Such an important topic.”

Shonda Fall: “I don’t want it to end!!”

Stacy Morris: “Thanks! This was amazing and an eye-opener as well.”

Sharon Boyd: “Great presenters!”



Make sure to join us in May 2022, when the extraordinary Carla Harris, Vice Chair Morgan Stanley Global Wealth Management takes the stage at PINK’s Signature Spring Empowerment Event. Details to come! 


PLUS: STAY CONNECTED: Check out the Pink Power Alliance line-up. Do these topics (below) resonate with you? Become a member. Enjoy private coaching and exclusive access to these leaders.


IHG Attendees Weigh In:

“As offices prepare to reopen, it was noted that unless we continue to evolve the workplace rules, we risk alienating people and creating an imbalance with the people working from home and those that come into the office regularly. As a leader, this resonates with me and I will take a balanced approach to scheduling, so people stay engaged.” Brian Hicks, SVP Commercial

“I was very impressed with the Little Pink Book event. Being a male leader in that setting was certainly impactful to me. I have always considered myself empathetic to our entire workplace, but this event made me even more aware of a few things I can watch for and do differently. I can’t wait to attend next year!” Jimmy Taylor, VP of Hotel Operations

“This event was truly empowering, my key takeaway is women should raise their hands and not wait to be given an opportunity. I liked the self-talk approach of Heather Robertson Fortner who says, “who told you that?”, whenever any negative thoughts about her ability creep into her mind.” Michelle Mills, Director of Benefits

The biggest take-aways…

1. It’s important to have conversations with your manager/ leadership about your goals and support needs to reach the next level.

2. D&I impacts us all, offer your ideas and recommendations on resolutions.

3. As a leader or an individual contributor you don’t have to know how to resolve all the issues, rely on our team or colleagues to help with solutions. Build a team that knows what you don’t know. Michelle Macon, Sales Delivery Manager

Event Thanks:

Please support our event exhibitors and contributors:

SignatureFDIHG Hotels & ResortsJewels With a PurposeIntertwined CandlesBlo Blow Dry Bar, Maune Contemporary Gallery, Christie Cookie Company & Healthy Hippo. 

Special thanks to Garnish & Gather for delivering lunch to our VIPs, and to Walmart, Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles, and Presentations for broadcasting the event live. It takes a village!

Photo Credit: Erinn Daez

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