When a group of women from Johns Hopkins Carey Business School converged for a weekend in the woods recently, they came home with much more than bug bites and campfire stories.
Fourteen students from Carey’s Women in Business and NetImpact student groups gathered at Thorpewood, a 156-acre mountain property in Thurmont, Maryland, created to nurture relationships with the natural world in ways that promote empathy and restoration. At first blush, the weekend might sound a bit more like Eat Pray Love than Leaders Eat Last. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“We wanted to talk about owning our power and supporting women in the workplace,” said Meijie Liao, a part-time MS Marketing student graduating in August. “Not seeing other women as competition, but finding out how we can effectively team up and develop skills that create a context around leadership that’s not focused on male-dominated narrative, to put ourselves in the leadership positions and proactively explore how we can contribute to create change.”
The combination of female leadership and the sustainability that a weekend at Thorpewood implies was no coincidence. Liao and her co-organizers for the retreat, Flexible MBA student Sarenka Smith and Carey Assistant Director of Student Engagement Wendy Crowley, decided early in the planning process that they wanted an experience focused on something related to the environment. It aligned well with the emergence of environmental, social, and corporate governance issues, or ESG, in business. So, they developed an agenda, then worked with Hopkins professor and environmentalist Paul Kayzak and his sustainability leadership co-leader, Kimberly Wilson, to hone it. Soon they had a plan that centered on food sustainability.
“The vision statement was very much about the gap in female leadership around sustainability topics and how we can have a stronger voice,” said Crowley, who represented the Office of Student Affairs’ engagement team in the collaboration. “What are the issues that are most prevalent? What are some possible solutions? How can we learn skills to be leaders around this big topic?”
Liao was a natural. A passionate cook whose 18,000-follower Instagram account focuses on food, food sustainability, and immigration, she has built a personal brand around the subject.
“Often, the burden of food sustainability falls on women, whether it’s in the supply chain working on a form or preparing the food,” she said. “We talked about the role that women play as leaders in this space and as investors in ESG. The ways they’ve used sustainability and labor are different from other fields where it’s more male-dominant, like finance and venture capital. Women are much more likely to put their time, energy, and money into it, and perceive lower risks when it comes to sustainability initiatives.”
To avoid a lecture-heavy program, the planners incorporated leadership competencies, styles, and purpose with nature walks, practical team-building games, and immersive settings—like discussing sustainability innovation in the lodge because the builders used innovative sustainability in everything from the choice of wood to the way the structure is heated and cooled. Liao spearheaded a learning experience on reducing food waste that involved hiking, foraging, learning about native foods in the local ecosystem, and understanding how being part of an ecosystem informs a person’s lifestyle.
For other students, the sustainability focus was new. But that didn’t dissuade them from being enthusiastic and adventuresome campers. Smith led an experience on “fast fashion” – the environmental impact of supply and demand for runway-inspired clothing at affordable prices during fashion seasons.
“Everyone came with a very open mind, and I so appreciated that,” said Smith. “I don’t think it would have worked as well if they hadn’t. We are all such different people.”
As is the case in building a business team, differences proved to be positive. After a hands-on learning day, an activity called “Story of My Life” encouraged the women to share things about themselves that couldn’t be found on a résumé or a LinkedIn profile. The result was a powerful encounter with intimacy, emotion, and vulnerability. In one day, they’d established individual understanding, solved programs in groups, and gained an indelible lesson in the value of human connection.
“Emotional intelligence is critical in facilitating good leadership,” said Smith. “I don’t know if that’s inherent to women, but I think the act of connection and trust and intimacy allows you to know other people better and allows self-reflection, introspection, and self-awareness. I firmly believe that great leaders are deeply introspective.”