Originally posted on www.news.okstate.edu
“Julie, I have a darling young lady who I know would make a wonderful speaker.”
Julie Weathers, director of the Center for Executive and Professional Development at Spears Business, was talking recently with Lou Kerr in Oklahoma City about the annual Oklahoma State University Women’s Business Leadership Conference, and Kerr had an idea for a future speaker.
“She’s been with CNN for a couple of years, and I feel like she would be just the type of young woman we might want to consider for the conference. She’s just dynamite,” Kerr said.
Kerr has been the driving force and talent recruiter for the largest and longest-running conference for women business leaders in Oklahoma. This March, the conference held its 30th gathering. In fact, both Kerr and Weathers were there when the first conference was held in 1992. Kerr can claim credit for being responsible for most of the more than 160 speakers in the program’s history.
“I try to get speakers in education, health, those who are a success in business,” Kerr said. “They’re engineers or maybe a futurist who can tell us where they think life is going to take us. These are women who are inspiring and experienced and capable.”
Kerr, 84, is president and chair of the Kerr Foundation, one of the state’s most respected philanthropic organizations known for supporting education, health, cultural development, community service and especially youth programs in Oklahoma. She is also one of the most active community organizers in the state and has sat on dozens of boards, councils and commissions. She is currently a trustee for Oklahoma City University, her alma mater; the Oklahoma School of Science and Math Foundation; and the National Symphony Orchestra.
Just before 1990, Kerr approached family friend Dr. Richard Poole, then the OSU vice president of outreach and a former dean of the College of Business Administration, about starting a conference to showcase women leaders from across the United States who would share stories of success, struggles and perseverance. Kerr is a member of the International Women’s Forum, an organization of more than 7,000 members supporting women leaders through education and networking. Through the forum and the local chapter founded by Kerr, the Oklahoma Women’s International Forum, she has contacts with hundreds of successful women CEOs, entrepreneurs, academics, military leaders, artists and many others.
“I knew these women would be make a wonderful program, so I offered it to Dick (Poole) at OSU,” Kerr said. “He called Julie (Weathers) and asked her to work with me to get it started.”
Weathers has worked with OSU business outreach programs since 1985 and is now director of the Center for Executive and Professional Development at Spears Business. She helped Kerr organize the first conference in 1992 and has been there for every meeting since.
“From the very beginning Lou has been the force behind the conference. For 30 years now, she has brought almost all of these successful women here,” Weathers said. “She has traveled all over the world and knows so many interesting people and she asks them to come, and they come. And what’s interesting is we don’t pay them — we just reimburse them for travel.”
Speakers have included Rosemary Weiss Hertz, one of the first female directors of the international accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand, who appeared in the inaugural year, and Naomi Lynn, president of the University of Illinois, Springfield, who spoke the next year about being the first Hispanic woman to lead a major U.S. public university. Others who followed included former U.S. Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin and the first female prime minister of Canada, Kim Campbell. Military leaders included retired Air Force Maj. General Barbara Faulkenberry and retired Navy Rear Adm. Ronne Froman.
CEOs, presidents, founders, authors, professors and even Olympic gold medalists have also appeared at the Women’s Business Leadership Conference. In 1998, five-time Olympic gymnastics gold medalist Nadia Comaneci and her husband, Bart Conner, also an Olympic gold medalist, spoke about their careers and their gymnastics academy in Norman, Oklahoma. A chance meeting between Kerr and Conner on a plane led to the couple appearing at the conference as well as Kerr organizing an annual golf tournament to raise money for scholarships for children to attend the Conner academy.
Sometimes the odd coincidence among speakers can be a surprise. In 2001, presenters Patricia Hill Burnett and Susan Wilson Solovic both shared they were Miss America pageant finalists, Burnett in 1942 and Solovic in 1980. But the more interesting facts they shared with the audience was what they did with their lives later in life. Burnett became a renowned portrait artist and vocal women’s rights activist after facing repeated gender discrimination in her career. Solovic became a successful entrepreneur, speaker and best-selling author on women in business and entrepreneurship.
“Well, we’ve had to work on what they call the glass ceiling, and you know, for many women to climb to even find the glass ceiling is sometimes a challenge,” Kerr said. “But I don’t see glass ceilings. I just see opportunities.”
OSU and CEPD has used the Women’s Business Leadership Conference as an inspiring look at what’s possible for women today. Many of the sponsoring corporations make it possible for many of their employees to attend.
“Companies like ConocoPhillips and Phillips 66 have been very supportive financially and also send people to attend what is a national showcase of women in leadership,” Weathers said.
Working women are not the only attendees. Kerr, who has been involved with the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics in Oklahoma City, has for 20 years invited female students from the public two-year residential high school to attend the conference.
“The stories they (the speakers) bring to the conference are amazing, and I hope the students find the people inspiring to watch so they can learn from their message or learn from that person’s life experiences,” Kerr said. “There’s so much they can learn from some of the most successful women in the world who have been here.”
The 30th Women’s Business Leadership Conference was held virtually because of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. The conference was organized around the theme of Pearls of Wisdom and was presented by the Oklahoma International Women’s Forum, the International Women’s Forum Leadership Foundation and CEPD at Spears Business.
The conference featured leading business executives and included a special guest, Dr. Kayse Shrum, president of the OSU Center for Health Sciences and dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine in Tulsa. A few weeks later, she was named OSU president-designate to replace the retiring Burns Hargis. When Shrum takes over this summer, she will become the first woman to lead OSU.
Watching the conference as she has for three decades, Kerr said working with the talented staff at CEPD made this year’s conference, even though virtual, a huge success. Many involved are quick to give Kerr credit for three decades of success, including company executives who support it after being swayed by her tenacity.
“I was talking to a CEO once and he said, ‘Lou, you’re like gum on the bottom of a shoe. You just don’t give up,’” she said.