‘I Discovered the Beneficial Role I Could Play’ — Gabby McCree ’83

Gabrielle G. “Gabby” McCree ’83, MBU Board of Trustees secretary, shares her thoughts about attending the recent Women’s Leadership Symposium, “Finding Our Strengths in the Twenty-First Century,” hosted by Mary Baldwin College for Women on March 22-23.

“A personal highlight for me was meeting motivated students,” says Gabby McCree ’83 (right) of her experience at the Women’s Leadership Symposium

Last week I attended the inaugural Women’s Leadership Symposium at Mary Baldwin University. Underwritten by a generous alumna and donor, the symposium came into being in the re-envisioning of the Mary Baldwin College for Women within the new structure of Mary Baldwin University. When you read the biography of Donna Dearman Smith, Class of ’70, (see below) it’s likely you will be impressed by her accomplishments.

The symposium kicked off with a hearty welcome from President Pamela Fox and then a charge by College for Women Dean Carey Usher: listen and learn, use this time to discover individual and collective strengths, and empower each other as a larger Mary Baldwin community.

We then moved directly into a working session using the Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths assessment tool led by Professor Claire Kent. Participants took the online assessment prior to arriving, and at check-in, each person was given a packet of materials outlining in detail our top five strength themes and ways to incorporate them into our lives.  

At dinner, graduates of the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership (VWIL) proudly presented the colors in ceremony before we were wowed by keynote speaker Marsha Sampson. Marsha encouraged the audience to aim high in their pursuits, but she also reflected on her struggles as a woman of color in her long career in business and in her community. She made note of her ability to draw on her innate talents and how she learned to strengthen her skills through hard work and collaboration. She also acknowledged her journey of discovery, always learning from mistakes.  

“As a Trustee and alumna of the Class of ’83, I care about our women-centered heritage and making our university more relevant to the next generation of men and women. ”

Saturday continued with multiple dynamic sessions including panel discussions, a follow-up workshop on the CliftonStrenths assessment, as well as hearing from our own talented alumni. There were workshops on résumé writing, discussing men as allies to women leaders, and hearing how our own MBU administrators define leadership.

Other featured speakers included Angela Darrisaw Cheeks, a dynamic corporate consulting coach from New York City, who encouraged participants to develop their own “personal mission,” work on discovering a personal brand, and promote social justice boldly. We closed with special guest Karen Sherman, a former Trustee and friend of MBU. Her passion and life’s commitment to improve the lives of women has played out in providing quality college education to many women in Rwanda.     

A personal highlight for me was meeting motivated students. Many of these young women admitted that they have had limited exposure to tools that tap into their own inherent strengths. Meeting successful role models who shared advice and experiences made for lively conversation, and it allowed alums and successful community leaders to reflect on their own journeys and future goals while offering help to others. I had the chance to meet online graduates, who had never before engaged with other graduates or current students, and I could see great potential to engage with them in future symposiums.

I also had the privilege of being a voice of experience as the only mom in the room during a session focused on family expectations. I discovered the beneficial role I could play by listening to others as they reflected on ways to tap into strengths and mull over future action steps. From the leaders in the room, I heard and observed aspects of leadership related to the following characteristics: perseverance, resilience, strategic thinking, working hard, deepening expertise, being inquisitive, building relationships, standing alone, pushing for integrity, promoting diversity, and actively seeking out mentors and advocates.

I am proud of Mary Baldwin for fulfilling their promise to enhance the women’s leadership component of our evolving university. As a Trustee and alumna of the Class of ’83, I care about our women-centered heritage and making our university more relevant to the next generation of men and women.  

Now going back to Donna Dearman Smith ’70, who helped make the symposium possible — I had the privilege of getting to know more about Donna and her personal story during the initial planning process. Much of it related to her commitment to women’s leadership and civic duty. One of the reasons I chose Mary Baldwin, way back, had to do with how deeply impressed I always was with women who had graduated from a women’s college. Donna’s forward-thinking views, which impressed us all so much at the symposium, reminded me of those women I had met and looked up to back then, and ever since in my MBU experience.

“I discovered the beneficial role I could play by listening to others as they reflected on ways to tap into strengths and mull over future action steps.”

Gabrielle G. “Gabby” McCree ’83

McCree has been teaching English as a second language to adults for more than 10 years in the New York metropolitan area. She has co-chaired the Imagine Initiative at Rye Presbyterian Church (a $4 million capital campaign) and chaired the Women’s Association Community Grants program. For the last three years, she has also worked as a mentor to high school students from the Hunts Point Alliance Center in the Bronx. 

Donna Dearman Smith ’70

A seasoned business woman and community servant, Smith retired from Alabama Power Company in 2014 after working in various jobs with The Southern Company for 37.5 years. She has held numerous volunteer leadership positions, including serving on the Samford University Brock School of Business Advisory Board and as founder and president of The Alabama Leadership Project. Smith is a former Alumni Board member at Mary Baldwin.

Mary Baldwin University and the Mary Baldwin College for Women are grateful to Donna Dearman Smith ’70 for her generous support of this inaugural Women’s Leadership Symposium.