William Blair Proud to Support IWF’s “Women Who Make a Difference” Event

Friday, March 19, 2021

Dialogue on Change



William Blair was proud to support the International Women’s Forum (IWF) Chicago 2021 signature event held on International Women’s Day March 8, featuring a dialogue on change with two women business leaders from the technology sector.

Marilyn Johnson, a former senior executive at IBM, and Yvette Smith, a corporate vice president with Microsoft, shared their vast experiences of climbing the corporate ladder in the male-dominated tech industry as women of color. Hundreds of business leaders attended the virtual event. Among the dignitaries were Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Illinois Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton, and five members of Chicago’s consulate general offices of the Dominican Republic, Chile, Bulgaria, Greece and Mexico.

IWF’s Women Who Make a Difference celebration honored its global membership that includes over 7,000 women from 33 countries representing 74 forums worldwide including Chicago. Its mission is to advance women’s leadership and champion equality worldwide.

Being your authentic self

Johnson and Smith are champions of leading meaningful and sustainable change—driving diversity, equity and equality in business and their communities. Both described change as a long and steady process.

“One of our challenges as leaders is making certain we are truly leaning in, truly believing in what we are asking our teams and organizations to do and become,” Smith said. “You have to be authentic about that. That is absolutely key and makes the ability to drive cultural change in support of a strategic change even more possible.”

Authenticity is also core to young women just beginning their careers, she added.

“You have to be OK with the woman you are,” Smith said. “Start finding her early and know that it’s a journey.”

One change Smith and Johnson have advanced through their careers is expanding the number of women and women of color in leadership roles.

Johnson, who had a 35-year career with IBM, was one of only a handful of African American women vice presidents at the company during her tenure. As a step to ensure a pipeline of talented women of color as leaders at IBM, Johnson and a few other female execs organized a networking event to share their experiences, backgrounds and journeys up the corporate ladder with fellow African American women working at IBM.

It was a hugely successful program, she said.

“HR, the education team all joined the initiative and it was replicated among the Latina executive women at IBM, the Native American women executives, the Asian women started talking to each other,“ Johnson added. “It’s inclusion. If I know you’re watching me that you’re investing in me—I’m probably not going to job hop.”

It is also about attracting diverse talent and in the tech field that can start as early as middle school, she added. More girls and young women are pursuing STEM careers but others are also entering the tech field in customer service or as educators, which was the path that led Johnson to IBM.

Real change

Both Smith and Johnson said they were encouraged that real change is occurring.

“We are able to be our whole selves in ways we weren’t,” Smith said. “I’m encouraged that corporations, big and small, are understanding the value of a diverse workforce.”

Johnson added: “We have a female, woman of color vice president of the United States. To me, that’s only happened because we have had so many women leaders in business—who’ve taken the helm, run businesses, made a difference, proved their value. Therefore, the risk is not including women in that pipeline for CEO and senior leadership.”

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