Laverne Cox Speaks at 40th Annual Simmons Leadership Conference


Source: Lisa Cohen Photography

Helen Ruhlin, Opinion Editor

“I come to you today, a proud, black, transgender woman from a working class background, raised by a single mother. I come to you an artist, an actress, a producer, a girlfriend, a sister, and a daughter […] I am not just one thing, and neither are you,” said Daytime Emmy Award-winner, famed actress and producer, Laverne Cox at the 40th Annual Simmons Leadership Conference (SLC).

“I am not a mistake, I am divinely made,” said Cox to the 3,400 attendees on Tuesday morning.

As the morning segment keynote speaker, Cox reflected on her ever-changing outlook on life, from shame to pride through experiences with bullying, self-love, and trauma surrounding the struggles of gender identity.

“I was deeply shamed about something that felt very organic and natural to me,” said Cox on her earliest memories in Mobile, Alabama of internalized femininity, something her teachers and family taught her to suppress.

“I had all these misconceptions about who transgender people were based on what I’d seen in the media […] I didn’t associate being transgender with being successful and accomplished.”

Over the course of her young-adult life, Cox found herself enrolled at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, where she became a dance major before landing in New York to pursue acting at Marymount Manhattan College.

“New York City represented, for me, the place, the space of ultimate possibility […] my education really happened in the nightclubs,” said Cox.

After a few reputable roles on television including appearances on VH1’s I Want to Work for Diddy and self-produced series TRANSform Me, Cox landed the recurring role of Sophia Burset on hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black.

Cox divulged her more recent challenges of coping with trauma response and triggered anxiety through therapy, and left the audience with a call to action for transgender rights: “You are the person who needs to spearhead the movement.”

After her speech, audience members had the opportunity to ask Cox questions. Several were from parents looking for advice on addressing  their children’s questions about gender identity. Cox answered with what she would have liked to have known as a child.

“What I needed to hear, particularly from my mother, was that I’m beautifully made, that I’m here for a reason, and not only am I loved, but that I am lovable,” said Cox.

The conference was held at the Seaport World Trade Center on Tuesday, April 2 from 7:00 a.m. to 5:20 p.m. Designing Success was this year’s theme, a perfect topic with the conference falling ironically on Equal Pay Day, a date commemorating the extra days females must work to catch up with previous year male earnings.

“Our mission here today is highly successful women, sharing their stories and their emotional, psychological and spiritual support of one another […] we know it is time for women to stand up and take the reigns,” said Joyce Kulhawik; host, Emmy Award-winning journalist and Simmons alumna, in her introduction speech.

“One visionary concept hatched over forty years ago, remains our touchstone: providing women better opportunities for cultivating leadership skills by learning from other women,” said Simmons University President, Helen Drinan in her opening remarks.

Amongst other keynote speakers was Susan O’Malley, the first female president of an NBA franchise. In her light-hearted story, O’Malley revealed the “Seven Lessons for Leadership and Life,” derived from her own experiences in the athletic professional world.

Susan O’Malley Image Source: University of South Carolina

“People understand that you mess up, they want to know how far you will go to make it right,” said O’Malley on her fourth rule of dealing with constructive criticism from a Bullet’s fan who had issues with seating cleanliness. After a brief phone call with the fan, O’Malley found herself scraping gum off of a stadium chair to actively solve the problem.

Other rules according to O’Malley, included making your bed, working on your craft, setting expectations, doing the right thing, having fun and establishing interpersonal relationships.

“We all have the gifts to be competitors, it’s our choice if we want to go out there and win,” said O’Malley.

After O’Malley’s speech, seven different speaker-sessions were offered throughout the Seaport for conference attendees to hear. Session leaders included Kathrine Switzer, the first female to participate in the Boston Marathon; Pamela Meyer, an author and certified fraud examiner; Susan David, a Harvard Medical School psychologist; Erica Dwahan, Founder and CEO of Cotential; Kate Biberdorf, award-winning chemistry instructor, and Carmen Rita Wong, a journalist, author, and commentator on behavioral economics.

Carmen Rita Wong
Image Source:

“When I started in the world of finance in the 90s, there was so little talk about the connection between who we are as human beings and the decisions we make when it comes to our money,” said Wong.

Wong presented a slideshow on the many (non-monetary) components of worth and value such as community, culture, identity, markets, trends and more, providing personal, financial guidance to a smaller audience of two hundred people.

“What is it in your life, that nobody’s gonna tell you to stop doing?,” said Wong.

“To know all of these parts of yourself, is to know your worth.”

Wong also touched on the concept of having a “North Star,” to follow throughout stressful financial opportunities such as enticing job offers and hefty loan payments.

“When you have a North Star, no matter what it is, the decisions that you make that have that North Star always in your sight […] they will turn out okay,” said Wong, who turned down a major televised position when it didn’t align with her North Star, which happened to be her four-year-old daughter.

The Simmons Leadership Conference was sponsored by over sixty companies such as Liberty Mutual, Philips, DELL, WGBH, Cigna, and Intel, with employee representatives from each in attendance. Throughout Tuesday’s event, attendees had the opportunity to network with other companies, pick up free gear, and even get books signed by some of the speakers.

As the premiere women’s conference in the United States, the SLC has expanded to the international level. The next will be held in Dublin, Ireland this fall.

“Now we’re taking our mission to the global stage. Our fourth international conference will take place in November and we are delighted to be making such a positive impact,” said Drinan.

Source: Lisa Cohen Photography