Women's Leadership Colloquium speakers

The Women’s College of Brenau University hosts first virtual Women’s Leadership Colloquium

Mar 25, 2021
Kathryne Davis

Three successful women shared their personal and professional achievements and advice to more than 500 virtual guests from 16 countries during the seventh annual Women’s Leadership Colloquium on Friday, March 19.

The colloquium, hosted by The Women’s College, part of Brenau’s comprehensive university, featured Anne Skleder, Brenau’s 10th president; Antonina Lerch, a 2003 graduate of The Women’s College, current Brenau trustee and former Hollywood costumer; and Dr. Jessica Herrera, a 2005 graduate of The Women’s College and the physician lead in the primary care clinic at the Los Angeles County women’s jail.

After having to cancel last year’s colloquium due to the pandemic, Debra Dobkins, dean of The Women’s College, gathered speakers together virtually, along with prerecorded messages and performances from students for the largest colloquium Brenau has had to date. Some guests also received a commemorative gift for the tea party held in the middle of the colloquium.

“Our goal is to educate and empower women to thrive personally and professionally and as citizens of the world,” Dobkins said. “As we know, the world cannot become equitable to all without the participation of all.”

Skleder, the keynote speaker, became president in 2019 and is the first woman elected to the position in Brenau’s nearly 143-year history. Prior to Brenau, she served in various roles at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, including senior vice president, provost and professor of psychology. Skleder received her bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Pittsburgh and her masters and Ph.D. in social and organizational psychology from Temple University.

During her keynote address, Skleder discussed the importance of leadership and how one becomes a leader.

“There’s no best way to lead,” she said. “Successful leadership depends, as the title implies, on the task at hand, and the abilities and willingness of the group.”

While at Wilkes, Skleder honed her skills by leading academic programs and initiatives across six schools and colleges involving areas such as enrollment, academic support, study abroad and university-wide strategic plans. In addition, she has presented nationally and internationally and published on a wide variety of topics.

“When I encourage someone I’m mentoring to think about taking an opportunity stretching themselves in leadership, they say, ‘I’m not cut out for that. I’m not a leader,’” she said. “‘That’s not what I do. It’s not what I am.’ They don’t look at the situation and see it as a match for their skills. They think of leadership as a trait, something that you have, or you do not have, not a set of skills you can bring to a particular situation. Leadership is not a trait that you either possess or you do not possess. It’s a set of skills that you can absolutely learn.”

Lerch, the Alumni Association Endowed Guest Speaker, shared how her childhood growing up in Belarus eventually led her to Brenau and her career as a Hollywood costume designer. Lerch’s presentation included photos and videos from the USSR during her childhood to show the audience members the struggles her family had to endure, including the difficulties finding food and the overcrowded and unkempt public transportation, as very few people owned cars.

She came to Brenau on a tennis scholarship and graduated with a degree in fashion design. During her time as a tennis star at Brenau, Lerch won many National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics titles.

Lerch nearly quit tennis, but her father convinced her to continue as it gave her the best opportunity to go to college in America. Her chance of living in the United States came through a tennis contact.

“A door had opened for me to play for Brenau,” Lerch said. “When I received my athletic scholarship, my soul smiled with gratitude. I realized I could pursue goals that had previously only been dreams. The weeks leading up to my departure for the states were a blur of energy and excitement.

“While still seeking reassurance, I asked my father, what was in his opinion, the most important thing in life. Without hesitation, he said, ‘It is freedom.’ From that moment on, I needed no further justification for the path I was choosing. It meant I could put all the hunger, depression, poverty and propaganda behind and focus on the future filled with hope and opportunity. For me, the tennis court will forever represent the safe and sacred haven.”

After earning her master’s degree in costume design from the University of Georgia, Lerch began her professional career in costuming with an internship with NBC Universal, where she worked on the television show Passions. Her professional credits also include Star Trek, Mad Men, Dollhouse, True Blood, Dexter and Torchwood. In 2015, she retired from the film industry and became a Brenau trustee a year later.

Herrera, the Featured Alumna Speaker, grew up in northeast Georgia and graduated from Brenau with a degree in biology. During her speech, she explained how growing up working in labor-intensive jobs, in a single parent household with four other children and dealing with bullies who used racial slurs shaped her future.

“Would I have necessarily chosen those experiences as a young girl?” she said. “No, of course not. But they did provide me with so much resiliency, and they helped me see past my neighborhood and to overcome the statistics that were stacked against me.”

After Brenau, Herrera graduated from Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health with a master’s in global health and completed medical school at the University of Washington in Seattle. During her career, Herrera has worked with the United States Senate, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, along with serving communities in Mexico, Nicaragua, Nepal and Uganda. Herrera credits her mother for influencing her dedication to fight injustices faced by underserved communities.

“As a female physician leader, I often reflect on pivotal moments that helped me find and strengthen my voice,” she said. “And certainly being raised by a strong woman is at my core. But getting my education at a women’s college and witnessing the strength and the character of my female professors really amplified that voice.”