Designing Women: Leadership Conference [re]Frames the Conversation

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This year Berkeley MBA students brought the design-thinking skills they gained at Haas to hundreds of women from around the Bay Area who attended the annual Women in Leadership Conference. We interviewed Stephanie Curran, MBA 14, who co-chaired the conference with Lauren Fernandez, also MBA 14, about how they came up with the conference’s theme, “Design Your Future,” and their decision to focus on design thinking as they planned the conference.

What has been your experience with design thinking at Haas, and why you were inspired to share that through the conference theme?

I was first introduced to design thinking at a case competition shortly after I started school. We used “divergent” thinking to brainstorm the feelings one has when buying cell phones, which led us to create a story around the anxiety our proposed consumer segment goes through when purchasing a new cell phone for themselves and their family members. The Haas team was the only team that took this emotional approach, and the judges were incredibly impressed by our depth of consumer insight, ultimately declaring us winners of the competition. Soon after, I took the core MBA class Problem Finding, Problem Solving, where design-thinking tools were further explored and I was able to expand on my previous experience.

After that, I was sold on the power of design thinking and  began to apply it to projects I worked on for Berkeley Board Fellows, IBD, and elsewhere, always with success.

How did you end up applying design thinking to planning the Women in Leadership Conference?

Lauren and I actually used this diverging brainstorming activity as we were trying to come up with themes for the WIL Conference. We highlighted six topics that were trending and then spent two hours post-it note brainstorming to think about all the different things that fell into these topics. “Design Your Future” was one of the results, and we both felt strongly that exposing people to tools of design thinking and how they can apply to your life both professionally and personally was incredibly important.

Did this lead to any changes to the conference from previous years?

As the conference planning began to take place we used the theme to structure both the panels and interactive workshops. The panels had been traditionally industry focused and we decided to switch them to a functional focus. We wanted to give attendees a broad overview of all the different roles that can fall under one function like marketing, consulting or finance. This way if one worked or aspired to work in marketing, they could get a better idea of what “marketing” means across different industries in one panel.

The afternoon workshops focused on teaching attendees specific tools that are key to design thinking, whether it be reframing problems or learning how to tell stories. We wanted to ensure that at the end of the day attendees would be able to walk away with a “toolkit” around how to “Design their Future” going forward.

Did you do anything else differently?

On the day of the conference, we also conducted an interactive design thinking whiteboard activity designed by our classmate Lindsey Schatzberg, also MBA 14. In the morning, attendees were challenged to think about some opportunities they were facing in life, both personally and professionally. These opportunities were aggregated into four distinct themes around lunchtime and the afternoon then focused on attendees providing solutions and thoughts focused around these themes.

This activity was incredibly important because for most attendees this was their first exposure to design thinking and it allowed them to see the entire solutions based process of design thinking come to life.

What were key takeaways for you from the conference?

We received incredible feedback both at the conference and after on the keynotes, panels, workshops and everything in between. It was extremely rewarding for both Lauren and me to see a year of hard work play out and go off without a hitch. I know we are both so thrilled to have been a part of such a wonderful experience and that we had an amazing team to work with. The other ladies on the Women in Leadership board were incredibly instrumental in making this conference come to fruition.

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