Caroline Johnson / News Editor

Smart is Strong celebrates International Women's Day with its third annual conference.

March 9, 2020

‘Trailblazers’ Inspire at Annual Smart is Strong Conference

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Excited voices and rays of sunlight filled Klarman Hall on Sunday afternoon as Smart is Strong’s third International Women’s Day Conference began.

Vice President of SiS Sneha Sharma ’21 called the crowd into an auditorium to hear from four women, who presented on their diverse careers in an effort to encourage personal initiative and community building.

“These people, we kind of see them as trailblazers,” Emily Zhou ’20, SiS co-president, told the Sun, explaining how the organization’s slate of speakers were a perfect fit for this year’s theme of promoting activism.

Elena Gupta ’19, founder of SiS, works as a social justice advocate in Ithaca, keeping with her organization’s community-building mission. At the conference, she spoke on “do-it-yourself advocacy,” encouraging Cornell students — particularly women — to “be the change” by using personal talents, communities and resources to achieve their goals.

“Helping other people or progressing social change is involved in developing a purpose,” Gupta said. In her presentation, she explained the importance of activism in building better communities and finding self-fulfillment.

According to Gupta, advocacy, by her definition, stems from dissatisfaction with the world’s problems and gratitude for one’s own privileges.

“Cornellians are uniquely equipped in society to enact change,” Gupta said, encouraging Cornellians to utilize their social capital for the greater good.

The second speaker, Maria Blackburn, works as a manager for the New York City-based Nomi Network, a non-profit that seeks to create economic opportunities for survivors of human trafficking.

“Our [Nomi Network’s] vision is a world without slavery where every woman can know her full potential,” Blackburn said. “I’ve met so many wonderful women who are being empowered by these programs, and it really inspires me.”

The nonprofit targets high-risk areas for human trafficking, seeking to provide victims of forced labor with educational opportunities and safe employment. In 2009, the organization began outreach programs in Cambodia, and in 2012, branched out to India.

Caitlin Stanton ’20 — who founded Cornell’s first engineering sorority on campus, Alpha Omega Epsilon, in 2017 — spoke on the role of fostering community in expanding the number of women who work in STEM-related professions.

“It’s very impactful not only to educate yourself, but to have role models you can identify with,” Stanton said.

The final speaker, Stephanie Lim ’21, who won the title of Miss World Korea in 2019, discussed the changing roles of beauty pageants, describing them as evolving into more socially progressive and productive events.

“The definition of beauty has changed over time,” Lim said. “Diversity is now more accepted, and even celebrated.”

Like the other speakers, she highlighted the importance of community in her industry: “Being able to support one another is beauty,” Lim said.

Sharma called the annual conference a “celebration” and a source of inspiration for local communities.

“This time, it’s more about kind of taking on actionable solutions to make an actual change in your community,” Sharma said. “I placed a big emphasis on picking speakers who are diverse and can bring something different to the panel.”

Zhou agreed with Sharma’s sentiment, similarly regarding the conference as a valuable way to bring awareness to current gender inequalities.

“There is progress to be made, and that stigma still exists in a lot of sectors that we are personally in,” Zhou said, referencing a STEM field that is still disproportionately dominated by men.

But most importantly, SiS hopes to encourage women to apply the messages of the conference in their own lives.

“Go from here celebrating women not just today, but every single day,” Blackburn said.