Paying It Forward: The Inaugural Women’s Mini-Summit

Go to a street corner. Ask a young woman, “Who runs the world,” and you’re likely to receive a one-word answer: girls. That’s what Anita Farrington, dean of the Office of Student Affairs at Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly), invited attendees to imagine as she kicked off the inaugural Women’s Mini-Summit at the school’s Brooklyn campus last month. She was, of course, alluding to the hit single “Girls (Run the World)” released last year by singer Beyoncé, and judging by the nods from the ’tween and teenage students in attendance, the reference hit home.

In addition to NYU-Poly students, faculty and alumni, attendees also came from the nearby Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women, where a handful of NYU-Poly students mentor. One such mentor — Jennifer Haghpanah, a doctoral candidate in materials chemistry — gave a presentation at the summit, which began with a series of short talks by female faculty and other researchers. 

Mary Cowman, associate provost for NYU-Poly’s Programs, Planning and Development and an instructor in the Institute’s biochemistry and bioengineering department, introduced each presenter, first offering context about the academic environment at NYU-Poly for women, who make up 22 percent of the undergraduate student population, 26 percent of graduate students and 15 percent of faculty. This has to improve, she noted.

Cowman’s assessment comes despite Forbes magazine’s 2010 inclusion of NYU-Poly in its list of top colleges for women and minorities in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines, but she was hopeful that the school could top its already impressive ranking on the list. “The path is possible,” she said.

Trailblazers Recognized

Farrington also spoke at the start of the event’s next program — a panel discussion featuring NYU-Poly alumnae who graduated between 1977 and 2004. The summit was dedicated to Ji Mi Choi, the chief of staff and vice president of strategic initiatives at NYU-Poly who wrapped up her almost four years with the school last week. “She’s a trailblazer and innovative spirit who exemplifies today’s event,” said Farrington.

Leading the lively discussion was Erica Marks, associate vice president of development and alumni relations, who posed her questions to alumnae representing various industries: software, financial services, and the TV, interactive and advertising space. Marks first asked the panel for the advice they’d give to students who wish to set themselves apart. Tipsy Talwar, ’04, the most recent graduate among the panel members, replied, “In the classroom, don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

“Not only should you ask questions,” followed Stephanie Mitchko, ’87, “but you really should not be afraid to be wrong.

That kind of initiative can lead to rewards, said Patricia Corcoran, ’77. Now semi-retired from a sales position at IBM, Corcoran shared the story of how her son, realizing he was graduating in the midst of a tight job market, took it upon himself to call the human resources departments of all the firms that interested him, requesting informational interviews at each. He proactively broke through on his own and his efforts landed him a great job afterward. The moral of the story: Don’t wait for something to come to you; go out and find it for yourself. 

Bala Krishnamurthy, ’84, moved the context from the classroom to the office, where she encouraged students to roam. “Find out about the projects other people are working on,” she urged. “We women don’t network enough. We need to do that because we don’t have an old boys’ club.”

The panelists then shared real-life stories about missteps and achievements in their career trajectories, though Talwar was quick to acknowledge that even knowing what career an undergraduate might pursue isn’t always a clear decision. “It’s okay not to know what you want to do,” she said. “I was in those shoes. Be open to ideas.”

Follow the ELF

Krishnamurthy offered more structured advice: Follow the ELF, which stands for “Easy. Love. Focus.” Expounding on her enigmatic recommendation, the nearly 30-year expert in the robotics field directed the audience to “make a list of the things that come easy to you, then pick the one thing that you love, just one.”

Warming to her words, Krishnamurthy emphasized key words as she continued. “You now know what comes easy to you. You love doing it. Why aren’t you focusing on it? That’s my strategy for success.”

Follow the ELF became a rallying cry for attendees as they moved to the final part of the event, a networking reception where panelists, academic presenters and guests could mingle. Their interactions fulfilled Marks’s earlier injunction to the audience: “Reach out to the alumnae who took the time to come because they wanted to give back, because they care about your future. Make sure you get to know them.”