Dining With Miss Lil: WomenWerk’s 4th Annual Conference 2017

By Lil Nickelson

Students and professionals of African birth are no longer assimilating into organizations created by African Americans as much as they did in the 20th century.  They are expanding the numbers by creating their own professional organizations that consider their cultural backgrounds and challenges they face living in 21st century America.

WomenWerk’s goal is to provide women with a platform to affirm and celebrate their success’ and change the way women and men discuss, perceive and overcome gender bias.  They seek to amplify the voices of women by bringing women and men together at curated community events such as the conference I attended to showcase the accomplishments of women.

WomenWerk is a women’s empowerment organization co-founded by two women of African descent, Nekpen Osman and Demi Ajayi and staffed by seven additional women of African descent.  They held their 4th Annual all day conference titled “Self-Care Isn’t Selfish” at NYU’S Kimmel Center on Saturday, March 11th, 2017.

Their theme spoke to me because I had originally planned to do absolutely nothing on this cold winter day; I mean nothing.  Then my publisher forwarded their email to me saying he had already forwarded my name in and to let him know if I couldn’t go.  So here I am at 8 o’clock that Saturday morning heading out of my apartment and walking the seven blocks in the freezing cold to take the A train to West 4th Street.  I suffer from the same affliction as a great deal of women do; putting everything else on our list of things to do before myself.

The morning panel consisted of five dynamic women including the moderator from different stages in life and professional backgrounds sharing how the try to achieve balance in their personal and professional lives.  They all admitted making time for their selves were the most challenging goal to achieve on a regular basis, however, it is necessary and important.  Making time to help others and getting in that “she” time to bond with other women should also be on our list.

The participants were mainly college women in the last year of undergraduate or graduate school who had real questions about how to find a mentor, how to build their career, how to distinguish their selves from other newly hired graduates and how not to feel competitive with other female co-workers.  The panel members recounted lessons they have learned through their successes and failures to tackle their areas of concern.

I was the last audience members to speak before we broke for lunch and I told them I had some points I wanted to share with my fellow audience members that my being a seasoned professional had learned since I graduated from NYU with my MBA in Finance in 1982.

“Mentors come in all colors and genders; please don’t wait for a woman of your ethnic background to mentor you.  My first mentor was a Jewish man from Brooklyn who attended college in North Carolina that was befriended by the black students while in school. From his experience, he was more than eager and willing to train me and allowed me the autonomy to showcase my skills.”

Every position that I’ve held during my career I’ve been the first black woman in a management role at the firm’s I’ve had the pleasure of working at.  I have made a point to mentor anyone that reached out to me for guidance or my professional advice.  Developing a career is as the panel members stated, building relationships.  Helping others will help you as well.

Be persistent in your efforts because they will pay off in time.  The CEO was so impressed with the kids from the middle school in Harlem where I was a classroom volunteer on Job Shadow Day that he told me he wanted to visit the school. It took a year and a half of being preempted before that day came.  I called up and persuaded the Community Relations Manager to join us and I convinced her to sit with the CEO in the back of the car going to and returning from the school.

She came back grateful to me for that face time with the CEO.  She wrote a grant proposal to our firm’s foundation that paid for 25 new computers, two printers and two servers for the school’s business program.  The CEO became a classroom volunteer at the school, mentored one of my students through high school and college and became President of Junior Achievement NYC; other company employees signed up as volunteers as well.

I ate lunch with a loving mother, Julain Shepard, a 2nd grade teacher from Maryland that came to NYC to spend the weekend with her adult daughter, Ajaee, a Design Assistant for a real estate development firm who lives in East Harlem.   After lunch Julain and I attended one of three one hour workshops offered, Health and Wellness led by a nurse practices.  My take away from this workshop was I really need to get more sleep every night to be a healthier me.  I already knew I am a work in progress; now I know where I must begin.

The afternoon panel included six people, two were men and was billed as Healthy Adulting: Gender, Goals, Finances and Caretaking. It was dynamic discussion and they readied the room to transform it into a space befitting of the evening gala that would begin at 7pm.

By the closing of the day’s forum I left the event with two new friends heading up to Chelsea Market for fresh herbs and my loose green tea peach tea leaves.  Ajaee, studying for her Bachelor’s in Fine Arts wanted to do a report on the interior design of Ginny’s Supper Club so we headed up to Red Rooster Harlem.  They graciously allowed us to go down stairs and she took all the pictures she needed.

The wait time was hours to get a table there to eat so we went to Sylvia ‘s Restaurant and had a lovely, comforting meal to end to a great day.  We hugged and went our separate ways and I can’t wait to send them a copy of this article.

Photo credit: 1) Ghylian Bell, De’Ara Balenger, Karen Boykin-Towns, Zain Asher and Asmau Ahmed. 2) Rita Obi, Minaa B, Feyi Oshinkanlu, Trevor Scott, Debra Cartwright and Jeremiah Abiah.

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