Leaders Impart Wisdom and Compassion at Kean Women’s Event

Being a good listener, fostering growth in others and mustering up the courage to say yes and be true to yourself were the hallmarks of discussion at the women’s event, “When Women Lead,” at Kean University on March 28.

The event held in the newly-opened North Avenue Academic Building reflected a celebration of Women’s History Month as well as the success of the 152-year old public institution’s talented alumnae.

In partnership with Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (20th District), the Kean University Alumni Association welcomed alumni, business leaders, community members and students to the three-hour long event featuring presentations, a panel discussion and an informal networking session. 

But the rainy weather outside failed to dampen spirits of those inside. The result instead was an evening infused with candid, insightful and at times, humorous advice from women who know first-hand what it means to overcome obstacles while remaining committed to helping others.

Welcoming everyone to the event was Kean University Board Chair Ada Morell, who graduated from Kean in 1997 with an education degree. She is vice president and co-owner of A.M. Title Agency in Elizabeth.

Assemblywoman Quijano opened the event with words of encouragement and a call to action to move forward and make a change. “We need to do more by leading by example,” she said. The New Jersey native born to Puerto Rican parents recalled some of the challenges she has faced while working in a male-dominated business that is still plagued by a disparity in wages between men and women and littered by misconceptions.

Keynote speaker Judy Spires, who is president and CEO of KB US Holdings, Inc., shared an abridged version of her personal story and urged those in the crowd to follow their passion and embrace every opportunity. “Don’t ever say no to a job because you think you don’t have 100 percent of the skills needed,” she said, adding, “Make yourself your benchmark. That is what will propel you to success.”

Moderating the panel discussion was Lora Condon ’94, who is the author of two successful books, consumer advocate, founder of New Jersey Beauty & Wellness Professionals and owner of Jersey Boutique Spa. Condon, who is often a cheerleader for women’s rights and their success, declared midway that she was overwhelmed by how inspiring all the panelists and their harrowing stories of courage were. 

Serving as a great example was Abena Antwi ’01 who said, “A leader is someone who cares for others.” Antwi, who is lead innovation scientist and associate research fellow for Burt’s Bees, recounted her harrowing childhood living in rural Ghana having to walk five miles to retrieve fresh water for her family. “Success is what you make yourself do,” said the mother of two who paid her way as a student at Kean by working three jobs.

Former Distinguished Alumni Award recipient and Kean Foundation Board member Patricia Barksdale ’95 knows all too well what it means to work hard to attain her goals. The financial advisor at Merrill Lynch worked three jobs while studying at night for her degree over a span of 10 years. In the audience that night, she spoke of the importance of following one’s own path and knowing the leadership of the organizations you support.

“Don’t be afraid to be the odd one out…And be cognizant of how we spend our dollars, who we support and be conscious of where the women are in the room when we’re not in the room,” said Barksdale who urged people that night to find out how many women are on the boards of corporations.

When Regional Public Affairs Manager at PSE&G, Sheridan Balmeo was asked what makes a leader, the panelist said, “Being an effective leader is being a good listener.” The Philippines native added that kindness has enabled her to accomplish many things. “I like to make friends instead of enemies because it’s easier to ask your friends to do what you need done. I’m strategic.” Her strategy has served her well, having succeeded as an effective communicator and strategist in the legislative and political arenas for more than a decade.

Maria E. Bordas ’74 ’80 MA, who is general manager, Business Analysis and Departmental Performance at the Port Authority of NY and NJ, a Kean University Foundation board member and 2015 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient, echoed that sentiment when she spoke fondly of her first mentors. 

“My parents made sure I succeeded.” The mother of two recalled the struggle she lived through as the only child of two Cuban parents who instilled in her the strength to persevere and recognize that failure was not an option. Now many years later and a string of successes in a business that is still densely populated by men, Bordas continues to pay it forward and urged others to do the same. “Leave that door open and extend a hand to someone else.” 

Offering yet another perspective on the panel was Pakistani-born Sanyya Gardez ’97, who is host of Brit Asia TV’s "Broken Silence" and an adjunct professor of communication at Kean. Growing up feeling stifled by a conservative Muslim household, Gardez recounted her courageous move to Great Britain and landing a job at the British Broadcasting Corp. She has tried to instill that courage in others by delving into difficult topics like prostitution, forced marriage and Islamophobia. “We have to help each other,” she said.

Rounding out the panel was Ana Montero, who is regional CEO at the American Red Cross New Jersey Region where she oversees disaster services, volunteer management, service to the Armed Forces, fundraising and external relations throughout the state. It became quickly evident that the one of five children born in Puerto Rico and raised in Trenton without any government assistance has never met a challenge she was not willing to conquer, never forgetting to do so with grace and humility. “I wanted to earn respect from teachers and wanted people to like me in my work. I had to learn to let that go to lead,” said Montero, who is now a single mother of a thriving 18-year old son and staunch advocate of her community.

Following the panel discussion, alumni and students had the opportunity to network with various professionals like public defender, drug court expert and Kean University criminal justice professor and administrator Yvonne Segars ’77.



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