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From left: Colleen Willoughby '55, Katya Matanovic, Megan Clubb '79 and Janis Wignall take a student question.

“If you don’t have a seat at the table, build your own table.”

Those are the kinds of inspiring words that help illustrate the purpose of the annual Women in Leadership Symposium, hosted by Colleen Willoughby ’55, a pioneering philanthropist and founder of the Washington Women’s Foundation.

Katya Matanovic urged young women: "build your own table."

Katya Matanovic, managing director of the Pomegranate Center in Seattle, coined the phrase in response to a student’s question about women in positions of power. Matenovic joined Whitman alumna Megan Clubb ’79, president and C.E.O of Baker Boyer National Bank, and molecular biologist Janis Wignall as panelists for the 2011 symposium, held on campus Oct. 17.

For nearly 30 years Willoughby has organized this symposium, which brings outstanding women leaders in various professional fields to campus to inspire a new generation of Whitman women.

In opening the symposium, Willoughby shared the three major differences she sees for women entering the work force today as opposed to 30 years ago: a greater expectation for civic engagement, the effects of technology and the advent of a global community.

“It’s important for women to be leaders in this community,” she said. “We want you all to be comfortable with your competence.”

Matanovic suggested to students in attendance that rather than accepting the male-dominated culture of some businesses, they should blaze their own paths in pursuit of their passions.

“Start over,” she said. “Make the kind of table you want. Maybe it doesn’t have any corners, maybe it’s purple, who knows? But it’s your table and you get to establish the balance of it. You don’t have to play by their rules. That’s the great thing about right now.”

Clubb, a Whitman trustee, graduated from the Sloan School of management at MIT after earning her Whitman degree. She is the parent of a Whitman graduate (son Riley Baker Clubb ’09) and the daughter of Baker Ferguson ’39, and was particularly enthusiastic about the opportunity to share her experiences with current Whitman students. She said that she took particular advantage of the Whitman alumni network to find jobs post-graduation.

Megan Clubb '79 speaks with a student.

“You get such a great education at Whitman,” she said. “Then when you’re out in the workplace, you learn more and more about what different careers and opportunities there are. Leadership is about creating the right environment for really creative and great people. I have people on my team that challenge me and tell me ‘you are really wrong.’ And that’s good. That in my opinion is the foundation of our success.”

For the British-born Wignall, it’s all about taking risks. She followed a mentor to the United States to do research and ended up on the cloning team that developed one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical drugs for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis,

“There is this part of me that wants to explore,” she said. “I’m always looking for the next thing.”

The panelists also addressed the challenges of balancing a career with family life, especially for students who, like many of the panelists themselves, have varied interests and aspire to be renaissance women.

“A lot of the choices that I have made have been to balance work with quality of life and relationships,” said Clubb.

Willoughby, who graduated from Whitman with a degree in politics and speech, and is an emerita trustee of the college, joked that she still doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up.

“Women can have it all,” she said. “You can do it all, but you can’t do it all at the same time.”

Wignall quoted Oprah: “It’s all about living your ‘best life.’”

When it comes to education and preparing students for success, Willoughby and Clubb both praised Whitman for the strides it has made in providing unique opportunities like the Women in Leadership Symposium.

“This is a very different place than when I graduated in 1955,” Willoughby said. “I’d love to do it all over again.”