USC Women’s Conference: Carol Folt, Suzanne Nora Johnson and John Iino

President Carol Folt joins Trustee Chair alumna Suzanne Nora Johnson and John Iino of the Alumni Association for a conversation about the power of having a seat at the leadership table. (Photo/Bronson Pate)


USC Women’s Conference celebrates the women of Troy

The 16th annual conference, organized by the USC Alumni Association, allowed attendees to connect with peers and learn from industry and USC leaders, including President Carol Folt.

March 04, 2024 By Rachel B. Levin

At the USC Women’s Conference, held on Friday on the USC University Park Campus, USC President Carol Folt shared some of the challenges she encountered early in her career as a female scientist rising through the ranks of academia.

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Addressing the 850 USC alums, supporters, parents, friends and staff gathered in Bovard Auditorium, she said she often experienced being the only woman at leadership tables and lacked female models in leadership roles.

“People told me I could never be a university president because I didn’t look like one,” said Folt, who in 2019 became the first woman to permanently serve as USC president.

Folt’s story of her journey to becoming a leadership pioneer resonated with the conference’s theme of “Embracing Your Power.” Organized by the USC Alumni Association and coinciding with the first day of Women’s History Month, the 16th annual conference emphasized women’s leadership, career growth and well-being. It gave attendees the chance to network with peers, learn from industry and USC leaders, and celebrate Trojan achievements at numerous venues across campus.

“Our Trojan Family has in large part been shaped by generations of bold, forward-thinking women,” said Nadine Watt, president of the USC Alumni Association Board of Governors, who gave opening remarks. She also introduced Folt as one of those “rock stars.”

“The women of Troy are an amazing force,” Folt said. “They carry a lot of that Trojan spirit. These aren’t people that back down, and they have ways of getting things done that are effective. They think about community. They’re looking at the future.”

Shooting for the moon

During her talk, Folt spoke about the myriad ways she has aligned with the Trojan spirit to shape a new future for USC. Envisioning the university as the “school of great schools,” Folt has introduced a series of “moonshot” goals to unify USC’s 23 schools toward common trajectories and prepare students to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

“We’re connected,” Folt said. “When we do something, it isn’t just about one silo. We try to make it about working together and doing things that are very special.”

USC Women’s Conference: Carol Folt
“When you start realizing your authentic self is what makes you a unique leader … your job becomes more joyful,” Carol Folt told the conference. (Photo/Bronson Pate)

These moonshots include transforming health sciences; expanding leadership in sustainability; attracting and retaining top faculty, staff and students; reimagining athletics; and accelerating advanced computing.

Folt shared some examples of how the moonshots are being implemented on the ground. The new Sustainability Hub is helping students and faculty collaborate around sustainability challenges. The naming of Allyson Felix Field and updates to the Galen Center are creating new excitement for USC teams. The USC School of Advanced Computing’s planned expansion into Silicon Beach will ideally position the university on the forefront of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence.

And in every moonshot area, Folt pointed to female faculty and staff who are helping to lead the way, from Jennifer Cohen, USC’s first female director of athletics, to Marlena Fejzo, clinical assistant professor of population and public health sciences in the Center for Genetic Epidemiology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. Fejzo was recently named one of Time magazine’s 2024 Women of the Year for her discovery of the cause of extreme nausea and vomiting in pregnancy.

Leading with strength and sensitivity

After her remarks, Folt joined alumna Suzanne Nora Johnson, chair of the USC Board of Trustees and former vice chair of Goldman Sachs, for a conversation about the power of having a seat at the leadership table.

“Women are leading this university,” said moderator John Iino, interim associate senior vice president for alumni relations, noting that Folt and Nora Johnson occupy USC’s top two leadership spots. “I’m really privileged to be the token male on today’s program,” he said.

The conversation explored the two women’s leadership styles and lessons they learned while maturing as leaders in male-dominated fields.

Nora Johnson named empathy, selflessness and having a mentality of “we” versus “me” as the most important attributes of leadership. “The best leaders really are all about service and serving others,” she said.

“The important thing is using your moments when you have them to advance the things you believe in to help the people that you want to see flourish,” Folt concurred.

Both Folt and Nora Johnson have made advocacy for women and members of other underrepresented groups central to how they wield their power. Folt also stressed the need to advocate for students, community members and others who may not have decision-making power at the top levels of the university yet are affected by its activities.

“The person not at the table is the most important seat at the table,” Folt said.

“If you really understand those people and get their feedback, they give you incredible insight into what you’re missing or what message has been sent,” Nora Johnson said in agreement.

She also noted that embracing diversity helps strengthen institutions. “I’m not the biologist on the stage,” Nora Johnson said, in a reference to Folt, who is an expert in the health of natural ecosystems. “But I think I’m correct in saying that … the more diverse an ecosystem you have, usually the better in terms of its resilience and its vitality. I really believe that’s true in social ecosystems.”

Despite the challenges that Folt and Nora Johnson have faced as women in male-dominated fields, both agreed that their gender has afforded them certain advantages and allowed them to bring fresh perspectives to leadership.

“When you start realizing your authentic self is what makes you a unique leader … your job becomes more joyful,” Folt said.

Working toward individual and collective goals

Attorney Lauren Guggisberg, who received her bachelor’s degree from USC in 2020, felt encouraged by listening to Folt and Nora Johnson discuss their career paths. “I really enjoyed hearing about the great roles women can have once they have a seat at the table,” said Guggisberg, who was attending the USC Women’s Conference for the first time. “I’m working on getting to that place.”

Having recently passed the California State Bar exam and joined a large law firm in San Diego, Guggisberg is new to navigating the hierarchy at her workplace and looking for mentorship to help her grow within it.

After the outdoor lunch in Alumni Memorial Park, where attendees mingled over salads and wraps, Guggisberg headed to “Welcome to the Jungle: A Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the Corporate World While Finding Your Passion, Purpose and Dream Life” — one of more than a dozen afternoon breakout sessions offered throughout campus on topics from career development to health and wellness.

Following the breakout sessions, conference participants reconvened in Bovard Auditorium for talks by leaders in science and technology. Alice Chang, the founder and CEO of Perfect Corp. — a leading artificial intelligence and augmented reality beauty and fashion tech solutions provider — spoke with USC alumna and journalist Adrienne Bankert about how women-led AI initiatives can promote inclusivity, break barriers and create opportunities for women.

Amy Ross, a USC trustee and cancer researcher who earned her doctorate from the university in 1986, moderated a panel on advances in early breast cancer detection. Panelists included researchers from Keck School of Medicine, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

The interdisciplinary lineup of panelists emphasized the power of collaboration to solve complex problems, echoing a sentiment Folt had expressed during her morning talk. When it comes to empowering women, “our work is never done,” Folt said. “We can take it on better when we’re working collectively.”

Making new connections

Grace Zhou works in the video gaming industry. Tosca Rivola works in theater production. Yet when the two women struck up a conversation at the conference, they were surprised to discover how much they had in common.

Both earned their degrees at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Both were first-time USC Women’s Conference attendees. And both are striving to disrupt their respective industries in ways that better serve women’s interests.

“You’re me in a parallel universe!” Rivola teased Zhou.

Zhou said she was “wowed” by the conference. She especially appreciated the opportunity it offered for like-minded Trojan women to connect.

“I realized that sometimes my own struggles are not unique to me,” Zhou said.