Sotomayor speaks to Advancing Women’s Leadership
“A wise girl knows her limits; a smart girl knows that she has none.”
This opening quote, first spoken by Marilyn Monroe, reverberated through the audience during last year’s Advancing Women’s Leadership Conference. On Friday, Oct. 23, 2015, in the Alex G. Spanos Center, Pacific proudly welcomed guest speakers Amy Purdy, Connie Rishwain ‘79 and 2015’s keynote speaker, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
The Honorable Connie Callahan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit introduced our keynote speaker: Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor is the 111th Justice to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, the third female and the first of Hispanic heritage. She was born into poverty, diagnosed with childhood diabetes and had an alcoholic father who passed away when she was nine years old.
Defying conventionality as she spoke, Sotomayor spent the majority of her time away from the podium. Much to the anxiety of her security team, the Justice abandoned the stage, which was crowded with elegant tables of guests, and declared, “I’m going up there to talk to the kids.”
As she made her way up the bleacher seats, Sotomayor shook hands with admirers and climbed the stairs of the stadium to greet high schoolers.
“It was important to me to have young people here,” Sotomayor explained. “Many grow up the way I did. I understand the need for hope.”
Sotomayor shared that she was fortunate enough to have had other women to look up to, which made her believe she could attend college. Even though Sotomayor’s mother had to work while other mothers were able to stay home, her mother’s job presented Sotomayor with a glimpse of female empowerment. “Every leader in my mother’s job was a woman.” She beamed.
“When I was having my diabetes treated, I saw a woman doctor for the first time. I had living examples that gave me hope.”
“It is important not to live in society’s stereotypes.”
“You might think you’re poor so you can’t succeed.” She continued that perhaps people have a family member with an addiction, or, “maybe you’re a female — or a little boy, it doesn’t matter — or have a chronic disease. You can succeed. There is hope.”
Sotomayor made a beeline for the high school students cheering in the nosebleeds. Among the schools present were Madison High, Bear Creek High and Franklin High School.
When asked by a high school senior to give a quote for the Latinas in the room, Sotomayor responded, “It is very cool to be Latina. You know why it’s cool? We’re beautiful. We’re sexy. We’re smart, and we can dance.”
In discussing the value of believing in oneself, the Justice did not neglect to address moments of self-doubt. She shared an anecdote about the time she applied for an internship, stating that her dream was to become a federal district court judge. At the time, she was called naïve. “I stopped talking about my dream. At times, I stopped repeating it to myself.”
In another instance of self-doubt, Sotomayor shared her anxieties during her Supreme Court nomination when negative opinions were openly deliberated. “It hurt so deeply, it shook my confidence,” she related. She credits her friends with carrying her through those moments. Sotomayor encouraged her listeners to find friends who will comfort you, “then kick you in the behind.” When asked what advice she would give to high school seniors, Sotomayor championed the importance of being a well-rounded person.
“Leaders are people who are interesting because they have passion about something,” she said. “How do you get that capacity? In college. It’s called a liberal arts education. Let yourself explore that you might like something you don’t know.”
When another audience member asked her what Justice Scalia was like, she answered, “He loves to sing. He tells great jokes. He’s a good colleague.” Sotomayor shared that all nine Justices always greet each other with a handshake.
She argued that to achieve success, one must not be afraid to seek help. “Too many people are ashamed of saying the words, ‘I don’t know.’ That’s a life secret: of being courageous to know when you don’t know, and being courageous to ask for help. No one’s born with anything. You have to grow into it!”
Sotomayor praised the importance of teachers. “If you talk to virtually every single successful person, there was a teacher. We have to be shown the way. Who does that better than teachers?” Sotomayor emphasized the significance of women being role models for other women. “I relied on men to be my mentors; there just weren’t many women in leadership positions.” Speaking as one of the nine most influential judges in the country, Sotomayor urged her audience to give back once they acquire roles of responsibility. “Don’t forget where you came from.”
Preceding Justice Sotomayor’s address at the conference were Amy Purdy and Connie Rishwain ‘79. You may recognize Amy Purdy now as a model, dancer or the 2014 Paralympic bronze medalist for snowboarding, but her journey has not been an easy one.
At the age of 19, Purdy was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis with less than a 2 percent chance of survival. “I lost my kidney, hearing in my left ear and both my legs below the knee,” Purdy recounted.
“My biggest loss would eventually become my biggest asset.“
However, she continued, after attempting to snowboard with her new prosthetic legs, Purdy fell, sending her snowboard down the hill with her legs still attached to it. She decided to either let her situation stop her, or get creative — Purdy eventually designed a set of legs herself. Soon after, she started work, school, acting and modeling and founded Adaptive Action Sports, a nonprofit that provides opportunities for people with disabilities to get involved with active sports.
“My legs haven’t disabled me. If anything, it has enabled me. They forced me to use my imagination. We can do anything. We can be anything. Look at [struggles] as blessings. They ignite our imagination. It’s not about overcoming our obstacles. It’s about using them.”
Purdy joked that, unlike other women who have to find shoes that fit their feet, she could make her feet fit the shoes!
Next on the podium was Connie Rishwain ‘79, a graduate of Stockton’s Stagg High School and University of the Pacific. This inspirational Stocktonian was president of UGG Australia; under her leadership, UGG became a $1.5 billion global premium lifestyle brand. After 20 years, Rishwain stepped down as president to spend more time with her husband and two children. She was recently elected to Pacific’s Board of Regents.
As Rishwain grew up, there was an expectation in “a big Greek family” for her to marry and raise children. “My father said you can do anything you want to do.” She went on to make Uggs a household name.
“No one’s going to hand you anything. Nothing’s free. At the end of the day, people are going to remember how you treated them, and how you made them feel. Treat coworkers like family. Support other women.”
Rishwain recounted how even other women would disapprove of her career: “Who feeds your baby when you’re traveling?” People would ask her.
“Between my husband, mother and nanny, the kids were never in want of love,” Rishwain responded. “I was judged, constantly defending myself for trying to make a living for my family.”
“Women need to be advocates for other women.” “Have a soul. All great brands have a soul; all great leaders have a soul.”
Imparting her final bits of wisdom, Rishwain urged her audience, “Make many mistakes. Be humble. Find passion. Surround yourself with people who tell you, ‘You can,’ then work hard to do it.”
It was a momentous day for Pacific to welcome such incredible women to speak on behalf of women’s leadership. They serve as living proof, especially for women and girls, that despite medical setbacks, poverty and society’s gender bias, ambitions can become realities.
Justice Sotomayor said it best in her personal mantra: “Mija, you can.”
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