A star-studded virtual conference showcased the power of Penn women.
In early October, almost 2,500 female alumni and faculty members gathered virtually for Momentum 2021: The Power of Penn Women.
Participants logged on from 53 countries and 47 states in addition to Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico to celebrate Penn women, representing all 12 Penn schools and class years ranging from 1955 to 2025.
For three days, through keynote addresses, breakout discussions, and panels, they opened up to one another about hardships. “I saw a psychiatrist for a year before I could run for office,” said Shirley Franklin G’69 Hon’07, who served as the mayor of Atlanta from 2002 to 2010. “My bosses were convincing me to run, but I couldn’t do it. Something was blocking me.”
They vented. “I was literally told once, ‘I don’t think you can direct an action movie, because male actors won’t want to follow you,’” said Elizabeth Banks C’96, the actress, director, and producer best known for The Hunger Games and Pitch Perfect. “It was insane.”
They asked what they could do to help. When Angela Duckworth G’03 Gr’06 explained a course she created named Grit Lab that teaches students how to set goals, make plans, overcome stress, and take care of themselves, audience members asked how they could replicate this for their communities back home.
They presented their accomplishments. In the first session, seven Penn faculty members shared insights into their groundbreaking research—from School of Social Policy & Practice professor Amy Hillier’s work helping low-income families with transgender children to PIK Professor Dorothy Roberts correcting racial biases in scientific research.
Most of all, they inspired. Penn President Amy Gutmann told the story of how her Jewish dad escaped Nazi Germany and how much it means to her that she is President Biden’s nominee to be the next ambassador to Germany. And she also underscored one gain made during her tenure. “For the first time in our 282-year history, a majority of Penn undergraduates are women, and a majority of Penn MBAs are women,” Gutmann said.
The conference marked the first time Penn women held this kind of large formal gathering in 20 years—not since November 2001, when 1,200 alumnae gathered on campus to mark “125 Years of Women at Penn” with two days of events and panel discussions, a banquet hosted by then-Penn President Judith Rodin CW’66 Hon’04, and the dedication of the Women’s Walkway at the Class of 1949 Generational Bridge over 38th Street [“Gazetteer,” Jan|Feb 2002].
While that 2001 celebration was “very reflective,” says Momentum cochair Ali Cudby C’91 WG’97, “our conference was about looking forward, about looking at what we are achieving and what it means for the future of women at Penn and the future of women in general.”
“We all just thought, Wow, we are overdue for this,” Cudby adds. “The last conference happened so long ago, and so many things have happened since then that have changed the tenor of talking about women.”
Asked by Penn’s Alumni Relations staff in 2018 to organize the conference, Cudby and fellow cochairs Katlyn Grasso W’15 and Claire Lomax C’84 initially planned for it to take place in October 2020, with 1,500 participants flying to the University from across the globe, keynote speeches taking place at Irvine Auditorium, and breakout sessions happening across campus.
The pandemic, of course, scuttled those plans, with the conference first postponed and then turned into a virtual event a year after it had originally been scheduled.
“I would have loved to have had in-person networking,” Cudby admits. “I would have loved for all these people to have met one another.” But there were benefits to staging it virtually. Rather than an on-campus bazaar that would have lasted three days, the Momentum website featured an online marketplace that allowed Penn alumni to shop and support Penn-led businesses. (One of the items on sale was tahini from Soom Foods, a Philadelphia-based company cofounded by Shelby Zitelman W’07. “I have to say I have been obsessed with Soom tahini and I had no idea it was made by a Penn grad,” Cudby says. “I live in Indiana, and I ship it there because it’s that good.”)
More importantly, the conference attracted even more high-caliber speakers than originally imagined. “Having it virtually made it so much easier for people to say yes,” Cudby says. As one example, Erika James, who began as the Wharton School’s dean in 2020, gave a keynote address from Charlottesville, Virginia, where she was on a college tour with her daughter. In her remarks, James touted the “monumental achievement” of Wharton’s most recent incoming class being the first in school history with more than 50 percent women.
Another panel about Penn women in government included politicians from all over the country and beyond—Franklin, the former mayor of Atlanta; Kate Gallego WG’12, the current mayor of Phoenix; Deika Morrison EAS’94 W’94 WG’08, a former senator in Jamaica; and Mary Gay Scanlon L’84, a member of the US House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. During the discussion, Gallego said it was a Wharton class that helped her overcome her introvert nature and “learn to give speeches.” And Franklin discussed how she focused on improving Atlanta’s sewer systems and drinking water, even while facing heavy pushback for its high cost. “I kept asking, what does a generation of children 50 years from now need?” she said. “Often those things aren’t an easy sell, but they are worth it.”
Staging the conference virtually also helped the organizers stay dedicated to its biggest goal: diversity, equity, and inclusion. More than 50 percent of the speakers came from populations that have been historically marginalized or underrepresented, and breakout sessions included conversations on race and conquering imposter syndrome. “So many organizations and companies had to rethink how they do things after the murder of George Floyd but not us,” Cudby says. “We already had those principles before it happened. We were dedicated to that path when we started planning in 2018.”
While there have already been talks of staging another conference, it wouldn’t be something that could be held annually because of the work involved among the organizers and some 200 volunteers. But it is something Cudby would like to see happen more than once every two decades.
“We could put on another slate of speakers that would be equally mind blowing without missing a beat,” she says. “The network of Penn is so incredible, and the women of Penn are so incredible.”
—Alyson Krueger C’07