By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Normally at this time of year, a “who’s who” cast of Alabama political characters would be gathering at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear for the Business Council of Alabama’s annual governmental affairs conference.
But like many things these days, BCA had to scrap the in-person conference this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, the group worked to produce a virtual conference. Rebranded as Engage Alabama, it featured panels about leadership, diversity and engagement with speakers ranging from mayors and other elected officials to power company executives and chambers of commerce leaders.
The online feel wasn’t the only thing that was different. This year’s conference also elevated the voices of women in Alabama business and politics in a way that hasn’t been seen before at the annual event.
On Wednesday, a panel of four women in leadership positions spoke about how organizations can better empower women in their workplaces.
Sheron Rose, the senior vice president of external affairs for the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, said that one way Alabama businesses can help women advance their careers is by creating mentorship programs.
Rose spoke about the benefits of women in leadership roles mentoring or even sponsoring women in junior positions to help advance their skills and enable them to show their talents in the company.
Alexia Borden, the senior vice president and general counsel for Alabama Power, agreed that mentoring is very important and that companies need to realize that supporting specifically female mentorships is important.
“There are just so many issues that women face that are just different, so now as we see more women in the workplace it’s wonderful to be able to have more women mentors and talk to them on how to balance everything we have on our plates, especially in the COVID world,” Borden said.
Rose said the Montgomery chamber does events like women in business roundtables, which allows women from different fields to talk to each other about their various challenges and possible solutions.
Mary Pat Lawrence, the senior vice president of government affairs for Protective Life Corp., said her company encourages young professionals to speak up at meetings and different opportunities with senior company members.
“Its really important to let junior people who are truly the experts, in a lot of cases, be the voice of the issue,” Lawrence said. “It’s an incredible way to promote yourself, to promote your value and to really get ahead inside your business.”
Setting goals is part of the mentoring process which the panel members also strongly advocated for, as well as working with the junior members on their professional goals.
Helena Duncan, the director of strategic operations and growth at the BCA, led the panel discussion and agreed that letting the young professionals interact with the executives of the company more often can promote positive growth.
“That is important to let the young people know that we are real, that we are people they can address in the elevator, that they are OK to send us an email, that we are not just the executives that you are not supposed to talk to,” Duncan said. “There are so many environments like that and it does make it very hard to grow.”
Companies also need to be mindful of expanding their talent pool to reflect various talents and include diversity and equity when growing. Rose said employers need to improve on their diversity but then also follow through by providing pathways for advancement.
Elevating women’s voices at the conference this year didn’t happen by accident. Katie Boyd Britt, president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, said it was a needed and intentional choice.
“Engage Alabama placed a spotlight on the many women leading the way in business,” Britt told Alabama Daily News. “Hearing from various panelists throughout the conference, it was encouraging to see and learn from the incredible women who serve as champions for future female business leaders.”
Gov. Kay Ivey gave opening remarks at the beginning of the conference’s second day and thanked the BCA for creating an event that has enabled an opportunity to teach industries and business leaders how to adapt to the major changes brought on by the pandemic.
“Events like Engage Alabama show that when we all come together, learn from one another and set our sights on a common goal, there’s just not much that can stand in our way,” Ivey said.