Natalie Simonian is one of three recipients who won the inaugural AIWA-SF scholarship to
attend the annual Watermark Conference for Women. The students participated in the Young Women’s Program designed especially for them. She is a Senior at The Harker School; she plans on double majoring in Art History and Bioengineering. Natalie loves going to ballets, operas, and museums. She also enjoys reading historical fiction and mysteries, playing piano, and making lots of chocolate mousse! Below she shares her conference experiences and reflections.
By: Natalie Simonian
I was very excited to have the opportunity to attend the Watermark Women’s Conference through AIWA-SF as a representative of young Armenian girls. As an incoming college freshman in the heavily male-dominated field of bioengineering, I was looking forward to the chance to learn from so many successful and confident women about how to stand up and fight for myself in situations where I might be disadvantaged or overlooked purely because of my gender. We attended two breakout sessions geared specifically towards young women: a talk on harnessing inner vulnerability as an advantage and a panel where the speakers discussed the challenges they had faced on their paths to remarkable success in traditionally masculine areas like computer science and sports. In the afternoon, we also attended a panel by Boston Scientific, where various high-level female leaders at the company spoke about “how to take your seat at the leadership table.”
The first session, led by the vivacious and relatable Emily Greener, co-founder of “I Am That Girl,” taught me that acknowledging and ultimately embracing our inner vulnerabilities is key for allowing us to successfully pursue our own happiness. She spoke about the eternally carefree and reliably hilarious personality she created for herself in middle school as an effort to fit in with her classmates; she maintained this persona well into her adult life, not understanding that this façade of uninterrupted happiness that she had constructed impeded her from truly realizing her inner feelings and true dissatisfaction with the direction her life was heading. When she met her future co-founder and best friend at a party, she finally faced the insecurities and uncertainties that she had kept hidden from everyone, including herself, and was able to come to terms with her true self and thus pursue the life that she really wanted to live. At a conference overwhelmingly dominated by executives and hugely successful celebrities urging women to be strong and confident and powerful, Ms. Greener offered an alternative interpretation of strength: the lesson that I took away from her talk was that our vulnerabilities are equally as important as our independence and tenacity, and that having the courage to face those inner weaknesses and self-doubt is crucial for achieving our full potential to succeed and thrive.
At the second session, the panelists discussed the hurdles they had overcome on their paths to becoming innovators and pioneers in areas where women are typically overlooked, particularly sports and computer science. Danielle Feinberg, director of photography at Pixar, recounted an instance where even as a high-level leader at the company holding an advanced degree in CS from Harvard, a male colleague vocally doubted her ability to constructively contribute during a meeting. Justine Siegal, the first woman to coach for an MLB team, recollected the time that she was cut from her baseball team at age thirteen, solely because she was a girl, and Lisa Wrightsman, the founder of Street Soccer USA Sacramento Lady Salamanders, described the confusion that many male street soccer players expressed at her attempts to construct an all-women’s league. For me, their advice seemed to be applicable in all facets of my life: they encouraged all of us to work hard for our dreams, to fight for what we believe in, and most importantly, to never take no for an answer. Their remarkable life stories that culminated in unlikely success despite incredible adversity—both personal and patriarchal—inspired me to pursue my dreams and goals with more conviction and determination.
The final session, featuring a panel of extraordinarily successful women who head various divisions at Boston Scientific, hit much closer to home for me because most of the speakers were scientists or researchers who experienced a great deal of inequality in their pursuit of positions of power. They discussed many struggles they had personally faced in the workplace, many of which are universally experienced by female leaders: having a suggestion ignored and then later the same idea being lauded when posed by a male colleague, being accused of histrionics when pursuing a project with determined passion, and literally being denied a seat at the leadership table that would have been automatically awarded to a male counterpart in the same position. Each panelist urged the audience members to never be afraid to speak up and voice their opinions in meetings with colleagues and bosses, to stand behind and fight for their ideas, and to be courageous enough to ask for that well-deserved seat at the leadership table. As an aspiring leader in a science and engineering field, this session really showed me how to advocate for myself and empower myself to attain the responsibilities I am reaching for and demand the respect that I deserve. It was also wonderful to hear from a strong, successful Armenian woman, Rita Bojalian, and listen to her stories of how she learned to assert herself and overcome ingrained prejudice in the workplace and offer suggestions for how we could do the same.
This conference was an absolutely amazing and eye-opening experience; these women’s stories and the recommendations that they shared inspired me to become more fearless, confident, and assertive in my daily life. As I enter college and begin working in engineering, I hope to apply the advice that I learned at the Watermark Conference so that I can fulfill my full potential and become the successful leader that I truly hope to be.