For the first time in more than two-and-a-half years, hundreds of (primarily female) professionals from across Central Massachusetts were able to gather again in person last month for the Worcester Women’s Leadership Conference.

A signature event of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, the annual Worcester Women’s Leadership Conference (WWLC) is the largest women’s conference in Central Mass. and is designed to offer attendees opportunities for professional development, personal growth, and business networking.

After being held virtually in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, on Oct. 28, 2021, approximately 400 individuals were on hand at the DCU Center for the conference’s highly-anticipated return to an in-person format. Thirty-plus months had passed since the last in-person WWLC, held on April 11, 2019.

With coronavirus still a concern and a public health threat, stringent protocols were in place to help keep attendees safe, including vaccine and mask mandates, capacity limitations, and readily-available hand sanitizing stations throughout the venue. 

Acknowledging the difficult times everyone experienced during the pandemic, WWLC Committee Chair and AVP of Community Relations at The Hanover Insurance Group, Kimberly Salmon, opened the conference by welcoming everyone back. “It’s really incredible seeing everybody […] We are the resilient ones. We are the women that kept this country running.”

She reassured the ballroom of women, “You are in a room with hundreds of others who intimately understand the challenges the pandemic presented to working women and caregivers — the setbacks and disappointments, the disruptions to our careers, the intense screen time, the extra effort, and the logistics to make everything happen,” and encouraged attendees to use the day as a way to “recharge, reenergize, and reinvent” themselves.

The day-long conference was headlined by two keynote speakers: Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall, CEO of the Dallas Mavericks; and Michelle Poler, author and founder of the social movement “Hello Fears.”

Ms. Marshall was hired as the NBA’s first Black female CEO in 2018. “I told Mark [Mark Cuban, owner of Dallas Mavs] basically, ‘I’m all in,’ and ‘all in’ means to me that we’re going to lead with INtent, INclusion, INsight, and INspiration,” she recalled.

Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall, CEO of the Dallas Mavericks, addresses nearly 400 attendees during a morning keynote at the 12th annual conference. Photo by Matt Wright.

Upon joining the Mavericks organization, Ms. Marshall said there were no women or people of color whatsoever in leadership positions for the team. Her sights set on cultural transformation, she completely evolved the company’s makeup within the first 100 days on the job by transforming her executive team to consist of 50% women and 50% people of color, for starters. She also ensured her staff were being paid equitably. “I can tell you right now, ladies, we do not have a gender pay equity issue at the Dallas Mavericks,” she said.

Ms. Marshall also spoke about key distinctions between diversity and inclusion, saying, “Diversity is about counting the numbers. Inclusion is about making the numbers count.” She explained ‘diversity’ often means making sure one person of a certain type has a seat at the table, but ‘inclusion’ takes it further by making sure that person is a valued part of the team who has a voice and is given the resources they need to succeed. In other words, she said, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” 

Ms. Poler, a social entrepreneur, keynote speaker, and author of Hello, Fears: Crush Your Comfort Zone and Become Who You’re Meant to Be, was the afternoon keynote speaker. She founded the social movement “Hello Fears,” which empowered millions to step outside of their comfort zone, tap into their full potential, and live life to the fullest.

As someone who would describe herself as “comfortable” in life, but not necessarily “happy” or “fulfilled,” Ms. Poler realized (via a challenge from a professor of hers) that fear was the one obstacle getting in the way of her dream life. On a mission to “become braver,” she embarked on the project “100 Days Without Fear,” tackling a new fear everyday over 100 days — skydiving, getting a Brazilian wax, eating oysters, public speaking, and much more; documenting all the feats on YouTube along the way. 

“People were not seeing a fearless girl online doing all these reckless things,” Ms. Poler said. “They were seeing a very terrified person showing up again and again because she’s working on herself.” And thus, after the 100 days, the project became a social movement which inspired many more to do the same.

Ms. Poler’s message to conference attendees was to get uncomfortable on purpose: “Make sure we can keep fear in its place and not let it hold us back from making all those bold decisions,” she said. She encouraged, instead of constantly asking, “What’s the worst that can happen?” start asking, “What’s the best that can happen?”

Author and Founder of the social movement Hekko Fears, Michelle Poler, speaks to WWLC attendees about tackling their fears and living life too the fullest. Photo by Matt Wright.

In between the keynote addresses were two breakout sessions consisting of four workshops each. They featured expert speakers and panelists from the local community who provided educational sessions and inspirational discussion around timely topics relevant to female professionals, including: work-life balance, motherhood, advancing your career post-pandemic, DE&I, practicing mindfulness, pandemic leadership, and leading through organizational change. 

The day closed with recognition of the seven Worcester Public School (WPS) students in attendance. The young women were at the conference as part of the “Susan Mailman Aspiring Young Women Leaders Scholarship,” a fund that, each year, allows for up to 10 students enrolled in WPS to attend the conference free of charge and for one WPS senior to receive a financial award of $1,000.

Sue Mailman is a long-time Chamber member who served as WWLC’s first committee chair and also served as chair of the Chamber’s board of directors at one point. This year, the young women selected as WPS scholarship recipients represented Doherty Memorial High School, South High Community School, University Park Campus School, Claremont Academy, Abby Kelley Foster Charter High School, and Burncoat High School.

The winner of the $1,000 scholarship was Malia Montalvo, a senior at South High, and a soon-to-be first generation college student who plans to study sociology. Ms. Salmon thanked the WPS students for participating in the day and wished them all success, saying, “There is so much opportunity that lies ahead for you and the young women of your generation, and we can’t wait to see how you take control to seize it. You are our future leaders.” 

WWLC 2021 was made possible by the generosity of presenting sponsors The Hanover Insurance Group and UMass Memorial Health, keynote sponsors Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and Digital Federal Credit Union (DCU), and more than 30 other businesses and organizations. 

“We’re proud to be long-time sponsors of this event because of the important impact it has on women in our community,” said Ms. Salmon on behalf of The Hanover. “This conference brings together strong female leaders from across our region and offers a space for them to advance their careers, skills, and networks, and to share their own experiences with others.”

Event organizers are already planning for the 13th annual conference, to be held June 16, 2022. New York Times bestselling author Luvvie Ajayi Jones is slated to be one of the speakers. A request for proposals (RFP) for workshop speakers is out now and proposals are due Feb. 1; tickets will go on sale March 1, 2022. As more details become available, they can be found on the conference’s website.


Dominique Goyette-Connerty is the Director of Communications at the Worcester Chamber. She can be reached by email here.

This story was originally published in the November 2021 edition of Chamber Exchange: The Newspaper, a quarterly publication of the Chamber. All newspaper editions are archived here.