Alexandra Clegg, Alexandra Clegg, chief investment officer for Magna Hospitality Group speaks at Bryant University
Alexandra Clegg, chief investment officer for Magna Hospitality Group, provides information and advice to students from both Bryant University and local high schools at the inaugural Bryant University Women’s Business Retreat.
Women in Business Retreat opens up communications, paths in finance
Jun 05, 2024, by Stephen Kostrzewa
Learn About Bryant Apply to Bryant

At first, there were a few awkward moments at the inaugural Bryant University Women’s Business Retreat. Around one table, a mix of Bryant students, local high school students, faculty, and industry professionals had only just met each other, and the gulfs between their lives and ages and levels of experience seemed wide.

But then Alexandra Clegg, chief investment officer for Magna Hospitality Group, asked the table a simple question: “What brought you to the event today?” Slowly but steadily, her tablemates began to open up: For some, it was to receive an introduction to a field they knew little about. For others, it was the opportunity to learn more about potential careers. Others, still, were looking for guidance and advice as they took their first tenuous steps into a wider world.

What united them, however, was an excitement to make new connections and share a day devoted to building relationships and networks for young women in business.

After just a brief conversation, it turned out, they weren’t so different after all — and that’s exactly how Retreat organizer, Senior Lecturer of Finance and Director of Bryant’s Financial Planning Program Mara Derderian had planned it. By bringing together such a diverse group, she said — and mixing the audiences at the tables — everyone came away with not just new friends but a new outlook as well.

“When you can learn from a wide range of personal experiences and perspectives, it doesn’t just help you understand the world around you better, it helps you understand yourself a little better too,” explained Derderian, who is spearheading the university’s initiative to develop and support women in finance leadership. By taking the students out of their comfort zone, it broadens their horizons.

As North Providence High School student Molly Witt noted, “I just think it's really cool because we're all able to share our passions with each other, and not just our passions, but who we are.

“An event like this gives you people to talk to about what you care about, and to look up to,” she said.

Kelly Lannan at Bryant University
Kelly Lannan, senior vice president of Emerging Customers for Personal Investing at Fidelity Investments, discussed the importance of managing your financial destiny and the joys of a career in the finance field

The four-day Women’s Business Retreat was dedicated to building those strong relationships, both on campus and off. Twenty-two undergraduate women from Bryant — some Finance majors, other just interested in learning more about the field — shared the first day of the Retreat with 80 young women from Rhode Island high schools, including East Greenwich High School, North Providence High School, Pawtucket High School, The Lincoln School, and LaSalle Academy. Also on hand alongside Derderian were Bryant faculty members — including Sr. Lecturer of Finance Maura Dowling, Assistant Professor of Finance Leila Zbib, Ph.D., and Professor of Finance Asli Ascioglu, Ph.D. — and a host of professionals eager to help guide the next generation.

The idea for the on-campus event, says Derderian, came from her work teaching basic finance education to high school students, with Bryant Finance students helping to deliver the lesson plan. There’s power in community, she stated — and that community can be especially powerful for young women. “There’s such a huge gender split and inequality really between male and female in the finance industry,” she said. “So, I wanted to develop programming that might be of particular interest to young women.

“What we’re trying to do with this Retreat is build camaraderie, build confidence, and build networks so that everyone can be the best that they can be, whatever they decide to do, and whoever they work with,” said Derderian.

When she put out the call for speakers at the event, she was overwhelmed by the response, including representatives from Fidelity, Magna Hospitality, and CVS Health. “The Retreat is a beautiful example of community support and outreach,” Derderian noted. “You've got some of the largest employers in Rhode Island and great community partners working with educators to help young women to excel.”

Gaining perspectives 
Over the course of a packed day, the attendees heard from a wealth of experts in a variety of areas. Morning speaker Kelly Lannan, senior vice president of Emerging Customers for Personal Investing at Fidelity Investments, discussed the power of financial education and the joys of a career in the finance field. “Financial services is one those few industries where you can see how your work affects people’s lives,” she notes.

Two panels featured representatives from CVS Health, with panelists in careers ranging from finance to marketing to HR. They discussed making the transition from college to industry, finding internships, creating successful cover letters, displaying confidence in job interviews, and standing out as a new employee.

In her keynote address, Clegg discussed her industry, the power of financial education, and secrets to success. But she also shared an earnest look at her career. Chief among them: You can excel while still being yourself. “I realized that I do not have to emulate the behavior of the men around me; I can do everything in my own style,” she told her audience.

CVS Health panelists at Bryant University Women in Business Retreat
Panelists from CVS Health offered professional development advice as well as information on pursuing a wide range of careers in business.

The day’s programming, said Derderian, aimed to let the students know there was a space for them in finance, no matter their interests. "We hope that when they leave the Retreat, all of the attendees say to themselves, ‘I can do great things,’” she explained. “But we also want them to do great things that are meaningful to them and align with their dreams.”

First-year student Monica Garbacz ’27 is still deciding whether to major in Accounting or Finance, but she knows that financial education will be important, whatever her future career holds. “It was really impressive hearing from such a wide range of speakers,” Garbacz said. “Some of the areas they talked about, like real estate finance, I didn’t even know existed before today.”

Finance major Andrea Cortes ’26 was excited to speak with the CVS representatives about potential internships in the finance field, but she also appreciated the opportunity to meet so many potential role models. “I was really excited to learn more about all of the women involved in the industry,” she said.

This past fall, Cortes, with Derderian’s encouragement, attended the Women in Alternative Investments Career Forum in New York City, where she filled a notebook with information and advice — and, just as crucially, began to develop her personal network. “It’s really important to make connections as early as you can, because it sets the tone for so much of what you do later on and after you graduate,” she noted.

Sharing the day 
For Witt and her North Providence High School friends Caroline Ricci and Shannon Fillmore, the day offered a chance to get a head start on their futures. Derderian had previously visited their Business Management 101 class to discuss financial education and when they learned of the Retreat, they leapt at the chance to learn more. “We were super inspired by what she had to say, and eventually our whole school got the word, so now we have a whole bunch of kids coming,” explained Witt.

Fillmore is planning to study animal behavior in college but knows that finance will still be an important part of her life. “This isn’t really an area I had ever necessarily considered but today is helping me to gain a deeper aspect of the business world,” she said.

The Bryant students were thrilled to welcome the young visitors. “I really enjoyed talking with them and getting to know them a little bit — and it was really cool how they’re already interested in these areas and are starting to make plans for the future,” said Monica Garbacz ’27.

Bryant students pose with the famous "Fearless Girl" statue in New York City.
Bryant students, faculty, and staff pose with the famous "Fearless Girl" statue in New York City.

Among the high school students on campus that day was Cortes’s younger sister, Alexandra. Andrea admitted to being a little jealous that she’s getting a head start with all of this important information and connections so early on, she said with a laugh — but only a little. After all, who doesn’t want the best for their little sister?

“I’m really glad she’s taking part in this, and she’s having these opportunities now,” Cortes said. “Because it’s going to help her so much later on.”

Exploring and coming full circle 
For the Bryant students, the on-campus gathering was the kick-off to four days of exploration and discovery. The next morning, they traveled to New York and took a walking tour of Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange. They also visited financial firms including Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and Black Rock where they connected with finance professionals, many of them Bryant graduates. A networking reception aided them in finding mentors and important allies within the university’s 50,000-strong alumni network.

The goal of the trip was to turn an ethereal future into something real. “It makes it something they’ve not just heard about, but something that they've experienced. It makes these ideas much more impactful and gives them something concrete to pursue,” says Derderian.

In addition to their visits, the group also attended a seminar with leadership learning and executive coach Tamara Nemo, received tips on women’s style in the workplace from fashion stylist Gayle Perry, and spoke with neuroscientist Nicole McLaughlin, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, about the importance of selfcare and wellness as they begin their careers.

On the last day of the Retreat, the Bryant students visited Northern Lincoln Elementary School, where they shared their own stories with the fifth-grade class and offered advice to the college students of tomorrow. Sara Hutchings-Schwartz, programs manager at Junior Achievement of Rhode Island, helped them prepare.

“A lot of people are afraid of math and finance because they don’t have those mentors and those models in their lives,” she noted. “You could be a powerful match for those roles.”

A member of Bryant’s newly formed chapter of Twelve Points Academy, a national organization dedicated to advancing financial literacy throughout local communities, Garbacz was eager to pay her knowledge and experiences forward, noting that financial literacy wasn’t part of the curriculum for her growing up. “These topics are so important, and they affect everyone’s lives. If these students start now in high school, they’ll be so much better prepared,” she suggested.

“I feel so thankful for everything I’ve learned at Bryant this past year as a first-year student, and this is a chance to share it,” Garbacz added. 

Read More

Related Stories