“Heads Up!” called Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, the first female to be be elected bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church’s history, to four hundred women and men across cultures, experiences, and life stages at the 10th Annual Diversity Woman Conference in Orlando, Florida.

Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie rocked the house at the 10th Annual Diversity Woman conference.
Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie rocked the house at the 10th Annual Diversity Woman conference.

“Here’s to the unique women in the room who know how to nurture, love, care, caress, confess, rejoice, and move forward to new ventures…who sacrifice self for others…who give 150% to your job without the pay package to match…who are so strong in their strength that others take their strength for granted…who have the tools to do the impossible before breakfast, and call the universe to order…with or without makeup!” Bishop McKenzie brought ALL the noise – tears, singing, shouting, dancing and, yes, praising.

If it sounds like a sermon, that’s because it was. And appropriately so. The Diversity Woman conference, founded by Sheila A. Robinson, is a standout among conference experiences. Let me explain. I met Sheila last year by phone. Her journey to publishing Diversity Woman Magazine and establishing the Diversity Woman Business Leadership conference was not unlike many leaders’ paths to exponential greatness. It started with an unplanned change in circumstances, continued through bouts of both inspiration and uncertainty, and ultimately led her to a place of clear victory – where vision, connections, and grit would converge to turn passion into prayer, prayer into purpose, and purpose into pure possibility.

Sheila A. Robinson, Susan L. Taylor, Tara Jaye at Diversity Woman 2015.
Conference founder Sheila A. Robinson, author and activist Susan L. Taylor, and Tara Jaye at Diversity Woman 2015.

With a 2015 theme of “Creating Inclusive Leadership Workplaces for Cultural and Global Change,” Diversity Woman is indeed a business conference, but that’s not all it is. It’s also a safe haven. A place where mutual respect and admiration run high, and no woman is an island. The very air seemed infused with love. Deep breaths. Easy laughter. Eye contact that said, “I SEE you,” and the shaking of hands that felt much more like holding hands. In short, both women and men came prepared to generously pour into each other, and that’s exactly what they did.

Hallmark Mahogany was a sponsor this year, and I couldn’t have known how appropriate a partnership this would be before actually participating. If Mahogany is about celebrating, nurturing relationships, affirming, and reflecting our true selves, the brand certainly found itself at home. 

Panels and workshops led by highly accomplished women and men went deep on topics ranging from emotional well-being to the role of white men in advancing women of color. Highlights for me were the panel on Leadership Insights on Gender Diversity, moderated by legal analyst and social commentator Sunny Hostin, featuring Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP, Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, President and CEO of Celebrity Cruises, and Darys Estrella, VP for Corporate Sustainability at VICINI; a talk on Covering by Christie Smith, National Managing Partner at Deloitte Consulting LLP; Simon T. Bailey’s session on Leadership Brilliance in the 21st Century; and the Mosaic Awards, a celebration of legendary women including Bishop McKenzie, Susan L. Taylor, Tina Knowles Lawson, Cathie Black, and Chris Nee – the creator and executive producer of Doc McStuffins.

Tara Jaye and Dr. Johnetta B. Cole, lovingly known to all Spelmanites as "Sister Prez".
Tara Jaye and Dr. Johnetta B. Cole, lovingly known to all Spelmanites as “Sister Prez”.

Lastly, as if I needed more reasons to smile, any day the incomparable Dr. Johnetta Betsch Cole is in the house is a good day for me – a proud Spelman graduate who had the privilege of matriculating under her leadership.

Personally, I felt changed by the Diversity Woman conference. I met women and men I believe will be lifelong friends –  people whose accomplishments inspired me, whose knowledge elevated me, and whose love fortified me. As a woman leader who’s made it her business to help other women reach their own professional high grounds, I am more convinced than ever that gathering together to speak power into one another is not only a good idea, but a pivotal part of raising our collective confidence. Bishop Vashti McKenzie said, “Don’t believe that who you are is better than who you can become,” and cited multiple companies who are now obsolete because they chose to cling to the past rather than embracing “the gifts outside their own front door.” I, too, believe that we are constantly becoming. When we know this for sure, it has the ability to unlock our full potential.

Open the door. Unwrap the gifts. USE what is uniquely yours to create a life worthy of you.

If you need help, mark your calendars for October 10-12, 2016 for next year’s conference, themed “No More Glass Ceiling: Dispelling Myths, Removing Organizational Barriers and Equipping Women with Executive Traits to Ensure Leadership Success.”  I’m convinced Baltimore won’t be quite the same come October 13th, 2016.

Now that I’ve been to the Diversity Woman conference, I can’t imagine missing another one. For companies who truly want to connect with diverse women in a space where their true selves shine bright, you might consider adding this one to your list. (This is me trying to help you out.)

I hope to see you there.

Tara Jaye Frank is VP of Multicultural Strategy for Hallmark Cards, Inc. and the author of Say Yes: A Woman’s Guide to Advancing Her Professional Purpose, written to help women from all cultural backgrounds chart a career course they can believe in and achieve. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @tarajfrank, Facebook at Facebook/tarajayefrank, or visit her at tarajayefrank.com.

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