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Mary Kennedy Brown Society Hosts Inaugural Women’s Summit

Three years in the making, the Mary Kennedy Brown Society’s Women’s Summit debuted on March 10 as a daylong celebration of Cornell Law’s female graduates, starting with their pioneering impact in law, business, and education, and continuing into the present with panels on increasing diversity, expanding opportunities, and developing networks in a post-pandemic world. Titled “Women in Entrepreneurship and Leadership,” the day included a recognition ceremony for the Law School’s oldest living alumna, a keynote on how to promote diversity in law, entrepreneurship, and business, and opening remarks by Jacquie Duval ’92, president of the Mary Kennedy Brown Society.

“Things have changed in three years,” said Duval, whose plans to host the event in 2020 ended with the arrival of the pandemic days before the conference. “The way we work, and the way we communicate. The way we gather, the way we learn, and the way we do business. The rights of women and girls have also changed with the harrowing impact of the Dobbs decision. But one thing one thing that has not changed is the impact that Cornell Law School has had on our lives. Looking around this room today, I’m thinking about the foundation, the friends, and the opportunities that Cornell Law School has provided me, and I am truly grateful.”

Setting the stage, Jens David Ohlin, Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law, shared stories of the Law School’s pioneering women—including its first three female graduates, Mary Kennedy Brown (Class of 1893), Helen Mae Colegrove (1896), and Frances Kellor (1897)—before honoring Muriel Kessler, Class of 1948, who continues to practice at ninety-eight years old.

“You are truly an example of what it means to be a lawyer in the best sense,” said Ohlin, gifting Kessler a clock to represent the way she has “stood the test of time to be here with us today. You have without a doubt earned your rightful place in Cornell Law School’s history, and I’m confident your story will inspire future generations of women lawyers. Your legal career may have been founded at Cornell Law School, but your perseverance, intellect, and courage are entirely your own. We stand in awe of your accomplishments as a lawyer.”

As attendees rose, Kessler accepted the gift. “This is Women’s History Month, and here I am,” she said, pausing until the cheers stopped, “at an audience of women lawyers, top in their field, many of whom are graduates of my alma mater, at a Women’s Summit by women lawyers, for women lawyers, in honor of the first woman graduate of the law school, Mary Kennedy Brown.” She continued with the highs and lows of her time at Cornell Law, the discrimination she faced, and the gratitude she feels, concluding with “the moral of this story: determination, perseverance, reward. In spite of life’s challenges and overwhelming odds, if you push, you will succeed.”

More lessons followed. There was a morning session on “Cornell Women in Entrepreneurship: A Lawyer’s Perspective,” moderated by Celia Bigoness, director of the new Blassberg-Rice Center for Entrepreneurship Law, with a panel that included an associate in big law, the program director of Cornell’s Bank of America Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship, a Law School alum who works as a jewelry entrepreneur, and an undergrad tech entrepreneur creating a platform for teaching math to children with disabilities.

There were three continuing legal education programs, “In the Business of Being a Woman Lawyer,” about the challenges faced in branding and leading businesses,” led by Maria Fernandez ’92; “Diversity and Disruption in Venture Capital,” led by Duval, which focused on overcoming barriers to women and people of color in the venture capital industry; and “Communities & Networking Post-Pandemic,” led by Ann-Marie Luciano ’01, on the pandemic’s impact on working and networking.

Then, after lunch and networking among alumni and current students, there was a keynote by Natalya Johnson, AB ‘07, JD ’10

about “Raising the Bar: Promoting Diversity in Law, Entrepreneurship, and Business.” “There’s a lot of buzz around entrepreneurship and women and entrepreneurship,” said Johnson, senior counsel at Johnson & Johnson and president of the Garden State Bar Association. “But how do you influence? How do you transform an organization? How can we better serve our clients? How do you shape the external environment?”

For Johnson, the answer comes in four parts. You make a difference by following your “North Star” to align with causes that feel most meaningful. You leverage your network to create alliances with people who share your passion. You act like an entrepreneur, strategically developing authentic relationships to support everyone in your network. Finally, you keep focused on the people you’re committed to help.

“If you want to drive change, you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves, look around, and see who you can pull up with you,” said Johnson. “A lot of us in this room would not have had the success we’ve had without the people who came before us and drew us along with them.”

The 2023 Women’s Summit was hosted by the Mary Kennedy Brown Society and sponsored by AllianceBernstein; and Dechert; K&L Gates; Sidley Austin. All Law School alumni, regardless of gender, were invited to the summit.

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