In Lean In’s UIUC chapter, knowledge is power. Dedicated to female empowerment in the workplace, this group strives to build confidence and experience among students of any gender or identity at the university. We sat down with Laurel, its president, and Addison, its vice president and treasurer, to learn about women in leadership, the importance of mentorship, and what it means to lean in.
What is Lean In, and how did you hear about it?
Laurel: It’s an international organization that was started by Sheryl Sandberg, who’s now the COO of Facebook. The goal of it was to basically help women “lean in” to their career and take advantage of opportunities that are coming their way, as well as managing all the complexities and difficulties that women face in the workforce. So, it was essentially created as a way to empower women to take charge of their careers. I researched it a little bit in my senior year of high school, and when I was on Quad Day freshman year, I saw the booth and signed up.
Addison: I got involved in this organization because I actually read Sheryl Sandberg’s book (Lean In), in high school for a business course. I thought it was super interesting … and then, when I saw the booth on Quad Day, I was like, “Hey, I read that book!” So that really got me interested.
Why do you believe in this organization?
Addison: For me personally, I have greatly benefited from creating a community. We have a mentorship program where you connect with an older member in the club, someone who has either similar interests or access to skills that you don’t have. As a STEM major, I don’t have access to a lot of the professional development that the business students have. So I was able to make those connections and really build those professional skills.
Laurel: I definitely think the social aspect of this club really is appealing to me. … Just because I’m in business and I have good grades and I’m doing all these things, it’s still not going to be a clear-cut path for me to find success in the workplace; I’m going to be faced with a lot of challenges. So, I think this is also opening my eyes to say that there are things that you need to do to help you be successful in both of those aspects of your life.
I do want to note, we’re talking about women and female empowerment, but Lean In is not exclusive to women. Men are great; we love having a different perspective in our club, and if we’re going to fight for gender equality, we need to have representation and perspectives from both sides.
What do meetings look like?
Laurel: The meetings are biweekly, so twice a month, and we’re normally about an hour long. … Our exec board is about four or five members. We’ll pick a topic that’s either relevant or something that could become relevant. I think what’s really impactful and important is the discussion aspect. … We really want to just take those walls down and let anyone voice their opinion or ask a question and have a discussion based on whatever topic that we’re talking about.
Addison: Our biweekly meetings are called circle meetings. So basically, we want to create that community circle where when we do talk about these issues, it’s less of an ‘exec board on this side and general members over there,’ and it’s more of a community discussion. … it’s about sharing those experiences and making those connections within the club.
How does the mentorship program work? Are there any key experiences that stand out to you?
Laurel: Basically, we partner people with exec members and older members of the club, and then people who are interested in the program fill out what they’re interested in—majors and stuff like that. We try to typically pair people with the same major.
I love that forum, and I’d say my favorite experience with my mentor was when we met for coffee for the first time. We ended up talking for, like, two hours, just about ourselves, our interests, careers, just basically anything. I left feeling that I made a new friend. She’s a senior now, and I always go to her for advice, whether I’m picking classes or I have a question about internships or something like that. It’s pretty much someone who’s gone through it all, toward the end of their college career, trying to give back any way that they can.
Addison: They’re also providing professional development opportunities. I was somebody who needed help building a resume, learning how to have an interview, learning how to speak eloquently and in a professional manner. That’s something that I built with my mentor. … I’m majoring in chemistry, and my mentor was someone who was in Gies College of Business. For me, that worked out better, because I was able to access those resources. I was able to access a sphere that I couldn’t before.
How has being part of Lean In helped you grow, both professionally and personally?
Addison: I was part of Lean In my entire freshman year, and it was kind of the only consistent thing in my life at that point, because, you know, you’re going to college, it’s crazy. I really struggled with my mental health last year, so having something consistent helped me grow, and having a group really brought some peace and some stability to my life.
And then, professional aspects, of course I’ve grown as a leader, and I’ve grown as a presenter. Having to lead discussions and lead our circle meetings, I’ve learned to speak more precisely, I’ve learned to get my point across in a better manner. And also, I’ve just grown to be a more mature, well-rounded, knowledgeable, and well-spoken individual.
Laurel: I got involved second semester my freshman year, and I really didn’t branch out socially outside of people that I knew living in my dorm. So, for me, joining Lean In was kind of putting myself out there, stepping outside of my comfort zone. Sometimes, it’s pretty daunting to walk into a room where you don’t know anyone and just kind of sink or swim. But that was a really cool experience.
Obviously, I’m really glad that I took that leap, and professionally, being president is definitely a complete 180 from where I started at the beginning of the semester last year to now. I was really scared to take on this role … . But I think I’ve become more comfortable taking charge leading meetings, giving directions to other people, and pushing the organization along. I think that’s definitely helped me grow in a lot of ways.
How can other students get involved?
Laurel: There’s Gies Groups, it’s a website that Gies College of Business has, and then we also have Get Involved at Illinois. You basically sign up and put your email in, and then you’re automatically on our email subscribe list. We send an email about every two weeks, and it’s basically like, ‘Hey, we’re meeting this Wednesday, 6:00 to 7:00, we have these social or professional events, feel free to stop by, email us, reach out to us.’ Outside of being subscribed to our mailing lists, students can also check our social media pages as they have updated information regarding upcoming events.
It’s pretty easy to get involved, I would say. There are a lot of clubs on campus that you have to interview to get into and go through like a recruitment process, but we don’t do any of that. As long as you want to be in, you’re a member.
Why is female leadership important, particularly in business?
Laurel: Because male or female doesn’t matter. As long as someone’s a competent leader and being successful, they should have the ability and the same opportunities to access these leadership positions. I think by putting in the work now, it’ll lead to a better future and better perspectives and representation in these top-level positions.
Addison: Exactly. We want to encourage young businesswomen to change the mentality around work-life balance, around their professionalism and role within a business, in order to create a more equitable workforce moving forward, and also just a better, healthier, more competent workforce.
What does Lean In mean for women at UIUC?
Laurel: I think it’s about preparing people for their career and things that could happen that may not be desirable. ‘What are you going to do about it? Here’s what you can do.’ I think that’s what we try to accomplish.
Addison: I feel like Lean In on a college campus allows us to reach a different demographic in terms of women—we can reach women in business, because it is more of a business organization, but we can also reach women in STEM and women in the arts, because these issues are universal.
Also on a college campus, a lot of women are at the very start of their careers. It’s before you get your first [big] job. It’s before you buy a house and buy a car; it’s before you make big life decisions. We want to be able to set women up for those big life decisions with a bit of more information and a different mentality. We want to help women develop themselves so that they are prepared when they do reach those milestones.
With over 1,800 registered student organizations (RSOs) at UIUC, the possibilities are endless. To learn more about Lean In and how you can get involved, check out their website and socials below.