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President Valerie Smith on the Importance of Speaking Up in Leadership

Before an enthusiastic crowd of high school women from across the commonwealth, President Valerie Smith discussed the importance of speaking up, embracing who you are, and taking risks at the 15th annual Pennsylvania Conference for Women earlier this month.

Smith provided real-world examples from her own experiences in higher education to the crowd of high school junior and senior girls, who attended the conference and participated in panels as part of the Young Women Program. 

“Speaking up means showing up at events that build community, it means showing up for those you love, it means showing up for those who need your help,” said Smith. “Speaking up means using your voice to advocate for yourself, to advocate for the causes that matter to you and that advance the cause of justice, and to advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves. And speaking up means participating in the political process, so that those who hold elective or appointed office are representing you, your communities, and your interests.”

Smith offered the students three pieces of advice for finding your voice: Embrace who you are, don’t be afraid to take risks, and remember that “you don't make right decisions; you make decisions right.”

“I love this idea [of making decisions right] because it helps us to protect ourselves from unproductive feelings of regret and it helps us keep control of our lives,” she said. “We are all going to face difficult decisions, times when we have to choose between two attractive options: who to love, what job to take, what school to attend, where we want to live.”

Along with the talk on speaking up, Smith joined a panelist on the topic of career trajectory and the key behaviors of successful leaders.

While at the conference, Smith spoke with Fast Company on how she navigates the double standard women face when expressing their emotions. Smith explained how she uses her communication skills to pre-empt anger.

“I just cannot let circumstances or individuals make me lose it,” she said. “I don’t have the luxury to be angry.”

She also noted that leaders should be responsible for equipping women and those who’ve been marginalized with tools to channel anger effectively: “I never want to tell anyone who is outraged … that they need to quiet themselves down,” she said. “But by the same token, it’s important to recognize that there are a variety of ways to express one’s thoughts and opinions.” She also noted that it’s important for men and women alike to be attuned to the way people around them interpret anger.

Read the full story at Fast Company.

Started in 2004, the Pennsylvania Conference for Women aims to promote, communicate, and amplify the influence of women in the workplace and beyond. Other speakers included tennis star Serena Williams, international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.

Listen: President Smith Speaks at 16th Annual Pennsylvania Conference for Women

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