Putting It To Rights: An Interview With Women’s Symposium Organizer

As mentioned in a previous post, Berklee Valencia was lucky enough to host the Women’s Empower Symposium- an all day event packed with speakers spanning various job fields, all in the name of empowering women. So I decided to sit down with Claïs Lemmens, an organizer of the event.


Berklee Valencia: How did the event come together?

Claïs Lemmens: We were at one of the Lagos concerts, and [a fellow organizer] came up to me and said, “It’s so weird, we were looking at the list of speakers, and there’s one woman on it, and like 20 men. Isn’t that weird? Shouldn’t we do something about this?” So we all started talking, and a lot of people got involved. We were having fun, and the day after we started a Facebook chat. We started thinking, “let’s think about who we know in our own personal circles that we can ask to Skype in.” This was not going to be a whole symposium, it was just going to be Skype sessions. We didn’t really need money to do Skype sessions, we just needed people that were willing to Skype in, so we started to make a list, and it was actually [our advisor] who said, “Why don’t you just make this a whole day event? Or even two days? Like a conference?” So we started working thinking about that, and the ball really started rolling when we got the diversity grant from the school. “This is the money you can start with and then maybe do something with.” And we were like, “We’re not gonna spend $4,000 on Skype sessions, so now we have to do something.” So that’s when it got super, super serious. The Facebook conversation that we had in the beginning, we cut it down from the people who weren’t really being responsive, then we had a first meeting. At that first meeting, we’d already started giving each other roles and responsibilities. I really wanted to do operations because I love thinking of details, and how everything works, and where everyone has to be.

BV: Why did you believe an event like this would be important to put on? Why would it be beneficial for the Berklee community?

CL: Every industry is still very male dominated, especially if you look at the CEOs and other executives. We see that in class as well, and in the music industry. All the executives are, for the most part, middle-aged, white men. So why is this good for the community? Well, especially for our program, we’re 50/50 in gender. It’s different in the other programs where girls are outnumbered by men. For us, it’s really balanced, which makes it a little schizophrenic to see that in class we’re treated the same way, but if we want to look forward and see what the future might bring, and the industry as a whole, that’s not the case. It’s not going to be…I’m not going call it equality because there’re different layers in that. But the music industry is not at all what we see in our class, so we wanted to give a voice to that female side, to our female students; but actually for everyone, just to make sure that they know that there’s also women and try to break the stereotype. One of the panels was called, “Recreating the Narrative”, and that’s what we were trying to do. And step away from that middle-aged white man in executive positions.

BV: And do you think that worked?

CL: I think so. We were frightened that there wouldn’t be enough people. Afterwards, especially the students who got to go to the workshops and ask questions, they said, “I’ve never felt so inspired, and these women were amazing, and still so down to earth, and they still find a way to balance family and have their job.” Their reactions were very positive for us, and they’re the reason we’re going to want to do it again next year. For next year, we’re gonna try handing it over to someone else. Hopefully, the person who gets to be the fellow gets to take the lead role and take charge of that next year.

BV: How did you go about picking speakers?

CL: We started looking for people in our own personal networks. For example, Christine Krzyzanowski used to be [another organizer’s] former boss. Angie Martinez, [one of the other organizers] did an internship with her. We got a bunch of people just by connecting with Berklee Boston. They said, “We know people who are cool or would be good for this.” Judy Cantor-Navas was actually recommended by Berklee Boston, and they paid for her ticket. That’s why we tried to find them close to home because it would be easier logistically and easier to convince them. It all really started with the first one, which was Yvette Noel-Schure. And that was because [another organizer] went to school with her daughter and knew that she was the publicist of Beyonce, and just wrote her a Facebook message. That’s what started it eventually because Yvette said yes. We were like, “We have to get her. Whatever happens, even if we don’t have any money after her flight, we have to have her.” And that was great, because we could say, “We have Beyonce’s publicist,” and other speakers would actually take us seriously. If we just say, “we have a secretary of some festival in Narnia,” they’d be like, “Well…okay, sounds like a student event that won’t be very big.” When we sent other application forms to the other speakers, we put it in there. They’d be like, “Ooh, well, this is probably going to be a big thing”. Even though it was not a big thing yet at all. We were still struggling with the budget, we were not sure about flights, and they would change all the time, and we were looking for venues and we had nothing. But we had Yvette, and that’s what started it all.

BV: What was the best part of the event?

CL: We can use this success to convince the speakers for next year, that all the speakers from this year already had a chance to network. These ladies, at the one dinner we had at the end of the day, these ladies were all taking selfies the whole time and putting them on Instagram and saying, “Look I made a bunch of new friends that I’m gonna do business with now!” That was amazing to see. We thought we were going to bring them to Berklee, but we actually brought them to each other. And we didn’t expect that.

BV: Do you think the event had an impact on Berklee?

CL: They’re not going to change their faculty, they’re not going to say, “Let’s fire half our faculty just to hire more women.” And that’s fine. At the end of the day, it’s not about gender, it’s about how capable you are. And all the professors at our school, they’re very capable of what they’re doing. But for guest speakers, I’m pretty sure when we started this event that Emilien was contacting speakers for next year. So I’m pretty sure it will have an impact, at least a little bit. I can only hope. It had a positive impact so far this year. Emilien said he didn’t even realize that there was only one woman, and now he does, so at least they’re aware of the problem.

BV: Do you think the Boston campus will be inspired to host similar events?

CL: There’s an event we modeled our symposium after, which was “Women in Tech”, at Berklee Boston, so they have their act together, they know about all this stuff. They think about everything, so this whole gender thing must’ve come up.

BV: Any advice to girls for not getting discouraged?

CL: Find a mentor, find a female mentor who has achieved a lot, someone that knows the business. We’ve been emailing with the ladies from the event, and job searches have been made, and connections have been made. I would say find a mentor because you can fall back on this example you have. If you feel discouraged, at least you have someone to look up to. Don’t hate on men, it’s a really fine line between this whole empowering women thing and blaming guys.


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