The Agnes Irwin School presents
aking "Her-Story," originally planned as a part of last year's 150th Anniversary Celebration, took place virtually during our equally historic 151st school year on Friday, January 22, 2021. This conversation between trailblazing women Billie Jean King, Tory Robinson Burch '84, and Neveen H. Mahmoud '07 explored the question of how great leaders approach building wholly inclusive environments that foster a sense of belonging for people from all walks of life.
This free event was made possible through the generosity of The Lily Foundation.
“Leadership from women is for everyone.”
The words of Billie Jean King — former world #1 tennis player, champion of equality, and founder of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative — resonated with the nearly 700 attendees of the virtual Making "Her-Story” event.
King joined fellow trailblazers Tory Robinson Burch ’84, founder of the Tory Burch Foundation and executive chairman and chief creative officer for Tory Burch LLC, and Neveen H. Mahmoud ’07, producer, entrepreneur and production manager for The Agnes Irwin School’s 150th Anniversary, for this special virtual conversation and live Q&A opportunity. Camille L. Seals, Agnes Irwin’s Assistant Head of School for Academics & Inclusive Excellence, moderated the event.
Making "Her-Story" drew a virtual crowd of AIS students, parents, faculty, staff, and alumnae, as well as attendees from across the globe. Sally Keidel, Head of School, welcomed all, remarking, “I am proud of our school for bringing together these dynamic female leaders for a discussion on community-building and a celebration of our mission — empowering girls to learn, to lead, and to live a legacy.”
Over the course of the panel and live Q&A, panelists touched on defining their sense of purpose, reflecting on their personal values, important figures in their lives, the impact of a newly inaugurated female vice president, balancing multiple identities as leaders in activist spaces, understanding the power of failure, and fostering a sense of community and belonging.
Billie Jean King, who won 39 Grand Slam titles and three World Team Tennis Championships, began a lifelong crusade against inequality at a young age, when she was barred from being in a team tennis photo for wearing shorts instead of the expected tennis skirt. She went on to achieve 20 Wimbledon victories and, in 1973, won the highly publicized “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match against No. 1 ranked men’s player Bobby Riggs. In addition to founding the Women’s Tennis Association, King also founded Women’s Sports Foundation in order to advance the lives of women and girls through sport, and the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, which promotes diverse and inclusive leadership in the workforce.
For King, inclusive leadership entails pursuing a people-first model. ”For me, it is about community,” she said. “You just want this world to be a better place for everyone, and everyone to be included. We’re all in this world together.”
King explained that for women in leadership positions, it’s crucial to not take things personally, to learn how to learn, and to use that framework to help others. “Know your strengths,” she stated. “Know what makes you great. That’s what will help you when you go out in the world to be the best you can be at whatever you do, and connect more of us together.” Representation, King noted, is crucial to inspiring young women to lead and inspire the next generation. “Girls are leaders for everyone, not just girls,” she added, underscoring her point with reference to the inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman and first Black and South Asian American to serve in this role. "Because if you can see it, you can be it," King declared.
Designer, entrepreneur, and social impact leader Tory Burch blazed her own trail after graduating from Agnes Irwin and the University of Pennsylvania, moving to New York City to begin a career in public relations within the fashion industry. She opened the first Tory Burch boutique in 2004, and her American lifestyle brand now operates more than 250 stores worldwide. She launched the closely affiliated Tory Burch Foundation five years later. The foundation has provided 2,800 women entrepreneurs with more than $50M in loans, and advances women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship by providing access to education, capital, and Fellowship opportunities.
Principles of inclusive leadership and the pursuit of equality are infused into the foundation of Tory Burch’s lifestyle brand. Burch, a champion of empowering women to embrace their professional aspirations, established corporate “Buddy Values” of integrity, kindness, empathy, humor, and respect, in honor of her father. Her teams also engage in Color Brave Circles, which encourage stories about race to be shared, allowing people to come together in a deeply compassionate way. Women, Burch said, are poised to achieve success, but must embrace boldness and be unafraid to ask for what they want and need. “You need to believe in your potential, and your power, and your voice and be able to ask for things, or else they will not come your way,” said Burch. Her company’s Embrace Ambition campaign — which featured many celebrity influencers, including Billie Jean King — challenges cultural stigmas associated with women and ambition and encourages women to embrace their aspirations and engage others in the discussions.
The third panelist for the evening, AIS graduate Neveen Mahmoud, is a freelance producer and entrepreneur on a mission to help architect social, education, and business structures for a future where all humans participate in healthy and thriving communities. Mahmoud, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and served as the CEO of Stanford Student Enterprises, worked previously in learning and development at Pixar, and co-founded Young Vets, a nonprofit production company that creates life-changing learning experiences for young athletes.
Mahmoud said she eagerly embraces inclusive leadership, both personally and professionally. She explained that a key component of such leadership requires embracing individuality, and drawing on that strength while exploring where it fits into the community. For Mahmoud, that means stepping out and helping others build new societal frameworks that support a greater number of people living in greater well-being — all while integrating people’s personal values, diverse views, and passions. “You have to go in search of what people can offer,” she said. “And bring people in and learn from them [about] what else they’re experiencing, or what else they could use help with, or what else needs doing. And that leads you down those paths of intersectionality in realizing that you all are connected.”
Key takeaways from Making "Her-Story"
Inclusive leadership harnesses the power of relationships and community — and promotes diverse ideas and viewpoints.
"For me, it is about community," says Billie Jean King. "You just want this world to be a better place for everyone, and everyone to be included. … We're all in this world together. It's important to listen, and to hear each person's story."
Leadership from women is for and benefits everyone.
In the words of Tory Burch, "Women are the answer. I truly believe that. They will change the world, and they are as we see it." Billie Jean King agrees, highlighting the importance of young men seeing women in leadership, such as Vice President Kamala Harris, for who they are.
Women need to redefine the term "ambition," and be bold enough to vocalize what they want and need — without fearing the inevitable "no."
"I have learned in my work as an entrepreneur that you have to be unapologetic," remarks Neveen Mahmoud. "If you're going to want to do something in this world, you have to ask people to join you."
Having integrity, being principled, and maintaining good character are crucial traits needed to positively impact the world.
"Everything starts with integrity," remarks Billie Jean King. "Character is something that is revealed. It's what you do when no one's watching [that] is the most important thing to remember."