It is a perfect spring day on the coast of Georgia: A long, flat expanse of taupe sand under powder-blue sky stretches to a gently lapping shore and the slate Atlantic beyond. A group of women are gathered on the beach around naturalist Stacia Hendricks, a wide-brimmed straw hat protecting her from the sun’s rays. She’s telling them about the abundance of life beneath these seemingly tranquil surfaces, much of which feeds the local waterfowl and sea life, which, in turn, feed us.
“It’s chicken noodle soup out here!” she says, reaching into the moist silica at her feet and digging out a small sand dollar, which she opens to show its tiny teeth. She allows them to hold a hunk of sea pork, a gently moving colony of creatures in a rubbery pink structure. “It’s like a condo,” she tells them. A few steps down the beach, she encounters a small, washed-up but very alive lion’s mane jellyfish.
“If you know how to do it, you can pick these up by a certain part of their anatomy and they won’t sting you,” she says, stooping down and standing again. The gelatinous creature droops from her outstretched, waist-high fingers, its pendulous tentacles dripping on the sand.
These accomplished women, students on the verge of finishing exemplary academic careers, as well as their high-achieving business “mentors,” have until this moment maintained a polished professionalism. Their lunchtime conversations after their arrival a couple of hours before revolved around IPOs, venture capital and the jobs they’ll soon be taking in Silicon Valley and Fortune 500 firms; many have walked to the beach in smart dresses and “business casual” clothes.
They’ve listened carefully as Hendricks explains how this coastal region supplies much of the entire Southeast’s seafood, relating this environment to their chosen fields in business. But as the jellyfish hangs before them, the veneer at last dissolves.
“Ewwwwwwwww!” they cry, as one.
It’s not an expression of fear, though — it’s the kind of delighted, if slightly grossed-out fascination evoked when you first watch something being birthed.
That is exactly what’s happening here. These young women, a select group of seven Terry undergraduate and four graduate students chosen for an extraordinary three-day retreat on Sea Island, are just starting to contemplate what might reside outside their classroom experience, and how their career goals and training connect them to the wide world beyond.
In the days ahead, the young women emerge from their habits as receptive students into active participants with mentors who begin to feel like colleagues. “It was probably the most impactful weekend I’ve ever had,” MBA student Chelsea Ritter will say later, on her way to meeting her new boss in AT&T’s Leadership Development Program. “You sometimes have a moment here and there, but this was a weekend full of moments.”
Rachel Zilinskas’ biggest takeaway, she would say later, “is confidence. People think being a woman in business or a minority in any field is a problem, rather than stepping up and owning who you are. I learned not to walk on eggshells in every situation, to own my status as a woman — my strengths and weaknesses.”
Despite their deep experience in groundbreaking careers, the mentors, too, came away with lessons learned. Many of them, however, echoed Bonney Stamper Shuman (BBA ’80), retired CEO and co-founder of Stratix Corp., a data capture firm known for its development of the bar code. “I so wish we could have had these conversations 20 years ago,” she says. “There were no guidelines.”
Though some of the scholars expected a more academic set of female-oriented topics, with seminars on salary negotiation and “leaning in,” the students and their seven mentors will attend a yoga session and tour Sea Island’s spa, quizzing managers on business techniques; dine at The Cloister, as well as attend a private session with a sommelier in the wine cellar and tour the labyrinthine kitchen operation under the hotel; have a four-hour golf lesson on Sea Island’s iconic, Seaside course, with personalized attention from resident pros; hear the second female president of the U.S. Golf Association talk about her career; take part in a two-part discussion with mentors about the #MeToo moment and how it relates to their experiences; and perhaps most importantly, carry on impromptu discussions over breakfasts and breaks about personal concerns.
“I vividly remember that second night. We were all exhausted, and sitting around having barbecue. Spontaneously, everyone just started talking and asking the mentors questions about their personal lives that young women ordinarily would hesitate to ask,” recalls Elizabeth Muse (BBA ’18). “They showed us we could ask literally anything we wanted to — and they would answer.”
The Sea Island Scholars retreat was born out of the Terry Women’s Initiative (TWI), a broad effort to connect students of all majors and genders with professional alumni in their fields, and promote confidence in personal and career goals. Conferences and workshops include a series of panels and presentations called Learning from the Pros; a day-long student conference “to empower and inspire” students in job-seeking and networking; an annual spring golf clinic, emphasizing its importance in networking; as well as more casually arranged “flash mentoring” and individual help.
Betsy Camp (BBA ’74, JD ’77), a retreat organizer, host and mentor (she’s CEO of DF Management Inc., a private investment and commercial real estate company), chairs the Terry Dean’s Advisory Council and is a key supporter of TWI. She recalls discussions with Dean Ben Ayers and others on how the initiative’s goals could be furthered with an experience that was “immersion-driven” rather than event-oriented.
“It came out of our exposure to questions the students had regarding life and work in male-dominated industries,” she says. “We wanted to put students in contact with women who had been in the trenches.”
In particular, Camp recalls a discussion she had with a student in the initiative’s first year, about the “confidence gap” outlined in “The Confidence Code,” which describes a critical factor hindering women in business. Despite real progress, as well as research by Goldman Sachs and Columbia University that shows “companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors in every measure of profitability,” authors Claire Shipman and Katty Kay wrote in an Atlantic magazine piece about their book, “… the men around us have continued to get promoted faster and be paid more. … Half a century since women first forced open the boardroom door, our career trajectories still look very different from men’s.” The reasons, they surmise, are based on both culture and biology, but the effect is “a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities.” Fortunately, they write, that confidence can be gained, through coaching and support, especially when it comes to learning from failure and taking risks.
“It really spoke to me, in terms of questions I’ve heard students asking, and it rang true to my own experience,” says Camp of “The Confidence Code.” “It was a cornerstone and guiding light to the Terry Women’s Initiative.”
Camp says in those first discussions about a retreat, Ayers “floated the idea of patterning something after the highly impactful Deer Run Fellows program.” In that fellowship program, each semester Terry faculty and staff choose eight students to take a leadership class taught by Dean Ayers that centers around a unique weekend immersion experience on leadership and life with select industry experts hosted by former Coca-Cola CEO Doug Ivester at his 25,000-acre Deer Run plantation in Leary, Ga.
“We just had to come up with the location,” says Camp. Since Camp and fellow mentor Shuman both own homes on Sea Island, they immediately tested the idea on Sea Island CEO Scott Steilen — who has a son studying at Terry. “It all fell into place,” she says, and 2018 marked the second annual retreat.
Most of the students have never been to — or even heard of — this historic, world-class resort, which Town & Country magazine last year described as “a mix between ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Gone with the Wind.’ ” Since 1928, when its hotel, called The Cloister, was built on this sandy soil, the place has attracted generations of visitors, some who became residents, attracted by its beauty, quietude and family orientation.
Sea Island has long been a contemplative retreat for corporate lions and world leaders. U.S. Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter have all visited. The Cloister was the site of George H.W. Bush’s honeymoon in 1945. While president, his son, George W. Bush, chose Sea Island as the site of 2004’s G8 Summit, gathering the heads of the Group of Eight nations for discussions on such topics as famine, polio eradication and world peace.
As the scholars’ bus from Athens drove across the causeway into the resort, past The Cloister and the spa and on to the verdant residential area where they would meet their mentors, “Our heads were just, left-right, left-right,” says Nive Gupta, her head swinging from side to side to illustrate the frantic attempt to take it all in.
The head-swiveling, however, had just begun. The bus’s first stop is at one of Sea Island’s more recent “cottages,” this one belonging to SunTrust Robinson Humphrey Head of Corporate and Investment Banking Michael Wheeler, who has loaned its use for this purpose. Some of the scholars will be staying here; others in similar digs on the island.
After lunch, Camp, who is also hosting scholars and discussions at her Sea Island home, tells students her memories of family vacations here. “When I was growing up, it was such a great place to go,” she says. “You had to dress for dinner. It was the first place I saw a finger bowl.” While a few of the dining and dress code traditions have relaxed, the core emphasis on family and showing young people the appeal of civilized adulthood remains. “My dad always said this was the place to go if you’d made it,” Camp says. Later, walking with the students on the beach, she will say, “Sharing all this seemed the right thing to do. Otherwise, why should I work so hard? What is the money about?”
The scholars seem to have those same questions in mind as they quiz their mentors and speakers, many expressing hope to find the same kind of passion and joy in their occupations as naturalist Hendricks exhibited in hers. The next day, a session on healthy eating becomes poignantly relevant as nutritionist Joyce Mattox answers a student’s query on how she found her field.
“I was a dancer,” she says, gracefully lifting a pointed toe high in the air. She pauses and adds, her voice quavering, “And I had a friend who died.” In her youth, the signs for the insidious eating disorders anorexia and bulimia were unknown and far easier to hide. “None of us knew, or knew how to save her,” she says, her eyes tearing at the decades-old memory. Women, particularly those driven by perfectionism, can be especially vulnerable. Mattox’s cheerful pep talk about self-care and easy-to-understand, undemanding dietary guidelines immediately take on greater meaning.
Mattox, also a Sea Island resident, answers succinctly when she’s asked why it’s important for the scholars to take a yoga class to quiet their inner “monkey brain” chatter and devote some thought to what’s on their plates. “These girls are going to run the universe,” she says. “And they’re going to have to learn to take care of themselves.”
Mentor Debbie Storey (AB ’80, MBA ’06), now retired after more than 33 years with AT&T, long ago recognized the importance of female encouragement and support in her own career, though she often had to find it herself by seeking out conferences and seminars that would address her goals and issues — few and far between in her youth. Like the scholars who earned their spots despite lack of wealth or family connections, she worked her way up to executive vice president after starting out as a customer service clerk. (Her first job was working alongside her mom at a McDonald’s.) Recognizing the value of confidence and the importance of overcoming failure, she wrote her own book on the subject, “Don’t Downsize Your Dreams.”
“I learn so much from these weekend retreats with these amazing young women,” she wrote in an email weeks after the retreat. However, she says one big takeaway is “how little support women still have in comparison to their male counterparts. It’s easy to see why their confidence suffers when their male counterparts are constantly having connections made for them, doors opened, opportunities presented. I learned how much it means to these women to have a network of their own — a powerful network of their peers and these women mentors — that they know believes in them, has their back, and will open doors for them throughout their careers.”
During the #MeToo discussions, mentors related stories from their early careers involving everything from general discomfort to comments so out of line that the scholars collectively gasped. While the students had not yet encountered the kind of outrageous affronts that plagued the mentors, they already faced plenty of issues — blatantly inappropriate questions in job interviews about their intentions to marry or raise children; weirdly off-putting emails; elders who disapproved of pantsuits as opposed to dresses; “diversity hire” perceptions; uncomfortable moments while socializing with coworkers.
Social media was a particular source of concern. Sometimes, problems arose even with the most sensitive and understanding bosses — male and female — because of unconscious biases. And however much else has progressed, these women share something else with their mentors — they’re likely to be among the few, if not the only, females in their workplace peer group, sometimes without a lot of support when they’re the target of demeaning or intimidating “jokes.”
“If you think it is a problem,” Marisa Pagnattaro, associate dean for research and graduate programs and director of Terry’s International Business Program, tells them, “it probably is a problem.” As MBA student Balveen Singh will say of the “non-linear learning” sessions, “it was good to hear that when you have a reaction, your emotion is valid.”
Here were a few of the mentors’ more salient pieces of advice:
“The image [the boss] has in his head for someone who can do that job is a guy. We have to change that.” (Storey)
“Humor goes a long way to defuse things. At one meeting, someone called out ‘I can’t hear you, sweetheart!’ and the woman immediately answered, ‘Well, honeybun…’ ” (Pagnattaro)
“There’s no such thing as ‘life balance.’ It’s juggling.” (Camp)
“Adversaries can become advocates.” (Pagnattaro)
“In your 20s, follow the advice of the Oracle of Delphi: ‘Know thyself.’ You may go through several iterations of your career, so learn your strengths and weaknesses. I’m an introvert. I like speaking to people, but it drains me. I didn’t speak up in class. I need time in my room by myself. Knowing that about myself is useful.” (Usha Rodrigues, UGA law school associate dean for faculty development)
“It can be very powerful to ask a question. Just lob it out there. Then you see everybody sigh, because they were wondering the same thing. It’s actually a strength to question. Sometimes you press people and find they don’t know what they’re talking about.” (Rodrigues)
“Most of the time, soft coaching works. But about 2 percent of the time, you have to be hard as nails.” (Elisha Finney, retired EVP and CFO of Varian Medical Systems)
“When you make a mistake, don’t replay the tape over and over. Fix it and go admit it.” (Storey)
“I didn’t get a critical promotion. I knew I was better than that. Senior management told me I wasn’t confident enough. I literally cried in front of my boss. He told me, ‘You will have lots of opportunity to get that.’ And I did. When I finally did land the promotion, I was told, ‘What most impressed us is that when we didn’t give you that promotion the first time around, you kept at it. That did more for your career than you will ever know.’ ” (Alison McLeod, managing director of the structured real estate team at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey)
“You have to do your research [when job-hunting] to see how firms treat women. Ask if there’s a female partner you can talk to. Use your alumni network.” (McLeod)
“You can change your mind. You don’t have to have everything figured out now.” (Shuman)
“When we were deciding whether to invest in a company, we’d take the CEO or founder to play nine holes. You’d see his entire personality — his ethics, whether he’d cheer other golfers’ good shots, whether he ‘forgot’ to count all his strokes, if he would explode at a bad shot.” (Diana Murphy, U.S. Golf Association president)
“Think about your male peers. Many of them are anxious and trying to do the right thing. Come together with them in partnership and diversity.” (Murphy)
“This is where we start. By talking about it.” (Shuman)
On the retreat’s last day, a caravan of scholars and mentors unload at The Lodge at Sea Island famed golf courses on St. Simons, home to PGA player Davis Love III. It is another picture-perfect day, as all learn the basics of where to stand, how to stand, grip, foot position, and more. Unlike tennis or handball, golf is a great equalizer, allowing duffs to play with pros. It is also an invaluable networking tool, one that is a common language among businesspeople, and certainly for most businessmen. “Golf is everything!” scholar Jillian Schmidt says of its importance in commerce.
By the end of their four hours on the course, sailboats are drifting past a flotilla of pelicans on sparkling St. Simons Sound, just a few yards away. The women are lofting golf balls high into the air, plopping them down near the flags on the chipping range. Later, Muse will say, “It was powerful for me to see women playing golf — to know that we don’t always have to talk about shoes or fashion,” she says.
The most helpful golf tip she received was “to keep my eye on the ball while swinging — I’d get too excited and swing and lift my whole body up. It helped me tremendously,” she says, “and you could relate it to a lot of things, including business.”
The women make their way back to The Lodge in early evening to witness the Sea Island tradition of the Scottish bagpiper’s mournful playing to bring the golfers in from the course. Soon, they’re huddling around a fire pit in the warm glow of the setting sun. Their faces happy, their glasses and hearts full, they’re huddling for group pictures and group hugs.
It’s a charming end-of-retreat portrait, but another group shot also lingers: Before Saturday night’s catered dinner at The Cloister, the women filed into in another historic Sea Island spot, where in 2004 the leaders of eight of the most powerful nations on Earth gathered with their assistants around a custom built table, with small flags for each nation. The walls are covered with photos of George W. Bush leading the G8 leaders down the beach, and at informal lunches. After a few minutes of reverential silence, the women exchange looks, and scramble into the high-backed leather chairs, with law school standout Toni Wormald striking a dignified pose and declaring, “I want to be Tony Blair!”
There are just enough seats for the scholars and their mentors. After a few minutes, someone asks, “I wonder if this table has ever had all women seated around it before?” They contemplate that question, as well as the unspoken one: Whether a group of women will one day find their places at the table as the leaders of the eight most powerful nations on Earth.
These young women may not be setting out to rule the world. But as Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “When I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court] and I say, ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” What seems impossible to those of us immersed in the status quo may now seem a little more doable to the young women leaving Sea Island the next day.
Weeks later, as Ritter is on her way to meet her new boss, she’s asked what piece of advice from Sea Island she will take into the meeting. “To be myself instead of trying to be the put-on leader people think you have to be,” she says. “As women, we think we’re not going to be taken seriously, that we have to be tough or strong. I’ve had good luck just being myself. The mentors encouraged me to do exactly that.”