It is astonishing to think that Collegiate Women in Business was founded only 5 years ago, given the number of members we have gained, the incredible sponsors who endorse us, and the impactful events at which we have made our mark. Have you wondered how all of this is even possible? I wanted to provide you with an in-depth background of how our professional organization came to be, based on the vision our founders had for CWIB’s success at Virginia Tech. After interviewing the women who helped CWIB gain its presence, I feel that their passion and drive for our organization is apparent through the steps they took to help us be where we are today.
Corrigan Serpa, Shannon Cabrey, Catherine Kidwell, McKenzi Macdowall, and Shannon Lavery are the founding women of CWIB. All five women had great team chemistry and worked well together to get the process started. They all agreed that this organization would better Hokie Nation, so they sought out a method to achieve their goal. Serpa told me, “The idea came about during a female lunch meeting at the Innovate LLC [Living Learning Community] in the Fall of 2013.” They realized other universities had similar organizations and believed Virginia Tech should be one of those. Serpa soundly felt that our school should provide a platform for “women to be equipped with the right skills and network to build their careers as they wish.” In order to be an established organization, they needed to find a faculty sponsor. Cabrey describes how “Gina French stepped into that role to provide us with advice and passionately lead us forward as we got started.” The next steps were to “register our group as a formal student organization through the university, create a website and a page on GobblerConnect, and start to try to get the word out as we grew.” Serpa is grateful that “Gobbler Fest, Pamplin Picnic and renting booths in Squires helped us” start to gain the presence they wanted on campus.
There were several more obstacles they faced throughout this process, one being establishing the proper pillars as the main core of what CWIB should represent. Empower, Prepare, Connect stemmed from the desire that women should feel “empowered to accomplish, prepared with the skills necessary to successfully accomplish, and connect them with a network of business professionals, peers, and alumni,” Serpa explained. Cabrey breaks down the method the founders used to put together these pillars so eloquently:
“We sat together one evening with VT faculty member Derick Maggard, and he led us in a discussion and an activity to determine our core values. Derick had the five of us simultaneously create lists of words that we wanted CWIB to stand for, represent, and accomplish with its existence. This was a timed activity and… once we were done, we found several words that were common across each of our lists.”
By initiating these pillars as the principles CWIB stood by, the “goal was to build a community at Virginia Tech that women felt comfortable and at home in, would be challenged by, could learn from to stretch their thinking, and would find lifelong friends and mentors within,” Cabrey told me. In doing so, “CWIB will empower students and prepare women with the knowledge and skills they need to have the career that they choose,” Serpa explained. Kidwell tells the Chronicles how the founders aimed to “not empower women in the workplace, but in general. Those verbs [pillars] have duality.” Personally, I have found these statements to be incredibly true based on my experiences within CWIB. The fact that the founders pushed for a professional organization for all women is something we cannot take for granted. As a non-business major myself, I still reap the benefits CWIB provides and know that the founders thought this through when creating CWIB. The workshops and advice we are provided with will help me in my field just as much as it will help a woman in Pamplin.
In order for us to excel in our respective careers, the founders wanted to bring in sponsors for CWIB who would be a point of contact to assist in our professional endeavors. Serpa remembers calling every contact she could think of; they graciously accepted the help that was offered, especially since not every contact was providing sponsorship. She also explained how “… it felt awkward asking for sponsorship as a student. In each email I asked to set up a phone call to further explain CWIB and answer any questions. I think picking up the phone was essential; they could then fully understand how passionate about the organization we were.” Being able to thoroughly explain their goals for CWIB gave sponsors a sense of the founders’ determination, which was a convincing way to support CWIB as a legitimate organization. In addition, acting as an all-female organization was a way for CWIB to individualize itself and advance womens’ careers. “All companies are emphasizing diversity and inclusion and backing a women in business group is usually a no brainer if they understand what that funding will be applied to long-term,” Kidwell felt.
Taking this intimidating step to reach out to business professionals proved to be one of the best decisions the founders made, as CWIB now is sponsored by many successful companies such as KPMG, Accenture, Altria, and Deloitte. Cabrey talked about how Gina French helped them get in contact with one of their very first points of contact, Deborah Golden, who leads Deloitte’s US Cyber Practice. Cabrey explains how “A few of our founders were able to sit down with Deborah and find ways for her and her organization to get meaningfully involved with our members, which ended up evolving into our very first Power Panel, with Deborah as a panelist.” Golden continues to support CWIB as she has hosted several workshops over the years! Engaging in these initial conversations can lead to some pretty fantastic connections, which have undoubtedly assisted CWIB in gaining more sponsors in a short amount of time.
Building connections through various communication routes, effective planning and organization tactics, and leadership opportunities in a team setting are only a few of the fundamental skills the founders believed they gained by being so involved with CWIB. Communication is a skill that will never disappear and Serpa feels that because of CWIB, she feels more comfortable in the business world where she is constantly speaking with other professionals. The fact that CWIB always has events taking place, thus requiring constant scheduling and planning, helped Cabrey with her general organization skills. “Keeping track of meetings and implementing strategic goals and action items” for CWIB kept Cabrey on her toes by giving her the experience she needed to prioritize her time. On a more creative note, CWIB let her express her visual design skills through “creating flyers for Power Panel and designing our logo and merchandise.” Her diverse skill set is thanks to CWIB’s preparation for success in the professional world!
As CWIB continues to grow, the founders are hopeful for further empowerment, preparation, and connections that will derive from being a member. Serpa feels strongly that “this [CWIB] connection motivates alumni to remain connected to the students and one another.” This stems from the initial goal of bettering Hokie Nation; the fact that alumni and current students can be connected due to their membership in CWIB can foster a continuous Hokie family where we can all relate to shared experiences. Cabrey states, “I think the group strikes the right balance between professionalism and skill building, all the while making lasting friends and connections that will last years beyond college.” Between attending monthly meetings, workshops, and socials, Cabrey hopes members “are able to make connections with other students across campus to study with, interview prep with, and just hang out and have fun with as friends!” There’s no better way to express the principal goal of CWIB as “people-oriented,” as Kidwell would say. She aimed for CWIB to provide its members with “a sense of inclusion and the toolkit to succeed outside of Blacksburg.”
I would say that CWIB has made the founders proud as leadership, membership, and sponsorship continues to grow and develop each academic year. The founders’ main goals for the organization continue to advance as we strive to empower, prepare, and connect women from all over Virginia Tech in all that we provide. New leadership teams implement these core values while incorporating their unique ideas as CWIB expands in its presence. I hope you all are as proud as I am to be a part of CWIB and feel inspired to take more initiative to get involved, better yourself, and better someone else as you connect to fellow CWIB members. Many thanks to our founders for endorsing and believing in CWIB in order for us to reap the benefits and make our own mark within the organization!
By: Emma Harwood