Martha Coakley Addresses Women at Ad Club Leadership Forum

"As a woman, I knew if I was going to make my mark, I had to do it on my own and on my own terms," Coakley said.

Yesterday, the Ad Club, the Boston-based trade association for the New England marketing and communications industry, hosted its annual Women’s Leadership Forum. Speakers ranged from Attorney General Martha Coakley to Director of the Boston Bikes Program Nicole Freedman to Stir’s Kristen Kish, who recently won Top Chef: Seattle. As different as these women are, they shared a unified message: All women should be encouraged to rise to their potential, whether it’s by leaning in, finding a place at the table, or carving out a work/life balance all their own.

“As a woman, I knew if I was going to make my mark, I had to do it on my own and on my own terms,” Martha Coakley said. Her message to the women in attendance was clear: Don’t lose sight of the past. Build bridges not just to the future, but, especially for younger generations, bridges to the past as well.

If Coakley took the long view through history, Nicole Freedman, who was awarded the John Hancock Admiration Award, described how she did the seemingly impossible in taking Boston from the worst city in the country for biking and making it a top three. In her hilarious talk, she showed how she used guiding principles like “Just Start Already” and “Be delusional enough to think you can succeed” to get her through. 

Another highlight was Amy Richards, producer of the HBO documentary MAKERS, who stunned with a video of the story of Kathrin Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. Richards pointed out that so many people come to feminism accidentally, that they aren’t necessarily looking for the role. To her, what made a woman a “Maker” was that what she had done benefited more than just herself. In Switzer’s case, after she was nearly thrown off the Marathon route by the director of the race, she said this: “I’m going to finish this race on my hands and my knees if I have to … because if I don’t finish this race, everybody is going to believe that women can’t do it and that they don’t deserve to be here.”

Throughout the day, there were plenty of references to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. One similarity with her book was how many references there were to family—parents, children, even a Big Sister who changed another one woman’s life. I loved how these women, and Sandberg, are so open in talking about being a mother. For so long, working mothers have had to hide this most essential aspect of their identity, as if our kids were some embarrassing uncle you didn’t want at your wedding. It wasn’t that long ago that a serious topic of discussion was whether women should put pictures of their kids on their desks at work.

So, when Sandberg told Oprah that, during preliminary interviews about her potential job at Facebook, she’d asked Mark Zuckerberg to call her back at a more reasonable hour, I found myself cheering. Zuckerberg wanted to talk late one night and she said she couldn’t. When he asked if she was OK, she said, yes, she was fine, adding, “I’m a mother. I go to bed at 9:30!”

Sandberg’s is not just a charmingly honest admission. It humanizes one of the world’s most powerful women and opens doors to a new way of looking at how women, and men, do business, e.g., owning our roles as caregivers—being proud of them even—to the people we work for and with.

Which is why, at the the Women’s Leadership Forum, my favorite moment came when Ad Club president Kathy Kiely officially welcomed the crowd to lunch and ended her remarks by turning to her daughter, also in the audience, and saying, “Please eat the broccolini on your plate.”