At Fordham’s Fifth Annual Women’s Summit held virtually on Oct. 20, business and community leaders joined alumni, philanthropists, and friends to discuss empathetic leadership and the power of giving. Held as the University, the city, and the nation emerge from the worst of the pandemic, the event featured lots of talk about the effects of COVID variants, vaccines, and remote work, with participants largely agreeing that the only thing certain about the near future is uncertainty.

Under the theme “Philanthropy | Empowerment | Change,” the morning’s keynote speaker, financial journalist and author Stacey Tisdale, MC ’88, spoke specifically about how priorities have been upended by workers during the pandemic, with women leading the charge for better work/life balance. Indeed, as the day progressed, panelists spoke of a balance struck by necessity, often on Zoom in the kitchen with the kids across the table.

Stacey Tisdale delivers the morning keynote at the Women’s Summit.

“Women are heads of households, even though we’re certainly not treated that way,” said Tisdale, speaking to hundreds of virtual attendees. “Women participate in the provider side of the financial equation much more than they used to, but the belief that it is a man’s job to provide for his family and it is a woman’s job to take care of her family is still common.”

Tisdale noted women control over 60% of all the personal wealth in the U.S. and a majority of the personal wealth in the world. Yet, only 22% of women rate themselves as very well prepared for financial decision-making.

“There’s a confidence gap here we’re talking about,” she said. “Women were not always taught to be empowered in our financial decisions. I’m challenging you to go a little bit deeper. Where do you want things to change?”

She challenged viewers to examine self-perceptions.

“You are already perfect. If you don’t believe this, it is due to a flaw of your understanding,” she said. “Get rid of this understanding and you will become rich. Know that you’re born with the ability to accomplish things. The numbers stuff is the easy part.”

Fordham College at Lincoln Center junior Jayda Jones told attendees how scholarships
made her journey at the University possible.

Being Vulnerable and Promoting Empathy

In a panel following Tisdale’s talk titled “Compassionate and Collaborative Leadership in the Workplace,” Fordham Law adjunct professor Katherine Hughes, LAW ’08, GSAS ’08, said that having her kids doing schoolwork across the table while she met colleagues on Zoom changed her perception of leadership.

“I think that part of being a leader now is to show those pieces of myself and show my vulnerability,” she said, adding that wearing her heart on her sleeve has made her an empathetic leader.

“You forget that you’re dealing with people sometimes, one of the silver linings [of quarantine was that]I was forced to see people as people,” she said.

Eventually, however, the kitchen became far too small. She now works from her basement to create a perceived separation from home life with an up-the-stairs commute for dinner.

Christina Luconi, PAR, chief people officer at the cybersecurity firm RAPID7, concurred that creating personal space remains key for those working virtually. She breaks up her day with a long run to put herself in the “right headspace for the day.” Fellow panelist Peggy Smyth, FCRH ’85, said that she too needs long walks to as a break from being “a short-order cook” for her athlete sons and being the U.S. senior advisor on global infrastructure for QIC, the Australian investment firm.

Marjorie Cadogan, FCRH ’82, LAW ’85, said that while she agreed that creating space between work and life in the virtual workplace is important, she said virtual meetings have broken down a perceived wall. 

One of the great things for me was to be able to see work as a part of life,” she said. “Work is a piece of a whole and you really do have to understand that you have to work with the whole [of life]to get the best of the piece.”

In the chat, she elaborated.

“You have to talk to people about their own relationships, hobbies, activities that are important to them and hopefully be able to share those important priorities,” she wrote. “The communication issue is a big one, because people communicate in different ways. Sometimes you just have to tell people what you need and what style of communication you respond to best to deliver your best work or response.”

Getting Real: Leadership Amidst Pain

In an afternoon panel titled “Compassionate and Collaborative Leadership in the Community,” Kimberly Hardy-Watson, FCRH ’84, president and CEO of Graham Windham, a nonprofit working with families in the city’s underserved communities, brought the brutal realities of the pandemic home.

“I have had to say goodbye to 52 people in this time frame and I’m not an anomaly. Whole communities were impacted by the loss and I’m still finding out who we lost,” she said, adding that the deaths have made everyone reframe priorities.

“I’m pleased at the pushback, [workers]are voting with their feet and saying that work life/harmony is important,” she said, noting that many workers are looking for new jobs in what was referred to as the Great Resignation.

Yet, Hardy-Watson admitted that even she was reticent to reveal everything she was going through during the pandemic. She contracted the virus herself, and with so many people depending on her, she coped with it in silence. Eventually, she stepped back and acknowledged what was going on.

“There’s a level of authenticity that has happened in this time that I haven’t seen in a while and there are huge opportunities in that,” she said.

Jane Abitanta, GABELLI ’85, ’86, concurred.

“I feel that the pandemic has cracked hearts open, she said, adding that communication had been more authentic and honest. “But not everyone feels ready to move forward. There’s that idea that we want to create normalcy and that’s not going to be easy for everyone to do—and I’m not even sure that’s a good idea.”

In her role as founder and CEO at the communications firm Perceval Associates, Abitanta recently spoke to a high-ranking real estate investor who said his firm was underwriting a financial plan that forecasts a pandemic every five years.

“We’re in a chronic crisis mode and have to get even more creative in virtual communication and in person, but not everyone is ready for that,” she said.

Naelys Luna, GSS ’01, ’05, founding dean of the College of Social Work and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University, agreed that even leaders need to acknowledge that they’re experiencing trauma.

“[T]he process of becoming a leader is much the same as becoming integrated human beings; many times we spend a tremendous effort of putting out fires and when you put that together with the chronic stress [of the pandemic]—and certainly we all feel it—it puts you in a reactive mode and that alters the way you see things.”

Giving as Your Authentic Self

Joan Garry, FCRH ’79, former executive director of the gay rights organization GLAAD, who now runs her own nonprofit consulting firm, said that the authenticity one sees emerging in the workforce has permeated all sectors of the economy, including nonprofits and philanthropy. But it’s not a new concept, she said. It’s one she learned at Fordham.

“As our Jesuit values remind us, we are women for others,” she said. “So, take a look in the mirror, you’re staring at an activist.”

She noted that women make 90% of the philanthropic decisions for the nation’s families. Indeed, many of the attendees said they already belonged to one of Fordham’s Giving Circles, which allow donors to give regularly—starting at $100 a year—to any area of the University, from STEM funds, to a mission-focused fund called Living the Mission, to particular colleges or graduate schools.

Indeed, in her own family, she and her wife spearheaded a giving circle among her children and their cousins. The kids decided to give to a wildlife foundation. When the foundation sent a stuffed polar bear to the house as a thank you gift for giving, her son was furious. He wanted all the money they gave didn’t go to real animals.

She referred to the get-something-for-giving scenario as the “Girl Scout Cookie Syndrome.”

“It’s all about the thin mints,” she said. “Even the well-informed people who know about the great work of Girl Scouts develop some form of sugar amnesia.”

She equated the so-called cookie syndrome to inauthentic special events pegged to bold-named celebrities rather than the cause, leading some attendees to have no idea what they’re supporting. She pointedly excluded the Fordham Founder’s Dinner, which she said brings the mission of the evening to life.

“This pandemic has changed all of us in ways we do not yet understand,” she said. “We need to look at everything with intention to make sure our life has meaning and purpose.”

And that includes philanthropy, she said.

“We have to give with an understating of our privilege and with a sense of joy.”

Backstage at the virtual summit




Tom Stoelker is senior staff writer and visual media coordinator for Fordham News. After fifteen years as a freelance designer, Tom shifted his focus to writing and photography. He graduated from Lehman College, CUNY where he majored in English literature and photography and he received his master's in journalism from Columbia University. His work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, and The Architect's Newspaper, where he was associate editor.