By Marlissa Collier
It didn’t take long to catch what the minds behind Comerica Bank’s Women’s Business Symposium were thinking by way of the type of conference they wanted to pull together for the third and final leg of the annual tour. Now in its 5th year, this year’s DFW area conference drew over 500 attendees to the same Toyota Music Factory in Irving, TX that had, just weeks before, hosted talents such as iconic R&B singer and songwriter Maxwell and Indie folk darling, Hozier. The venue, usually outfitted with strobing lights and thousands of fans, was, well, different on Thursday – the fan-favorites lawn closed off, stage cleared of a full band setup, and the what would be the standing audience area was set in upscale banquet decor. Still, though void of entertainment celebrities, the place somehow, had just as much business star power.
Stepping into the venue that had been covertly backlit with Comerica Bank blue, it became apparent that this year’s symposium was meant to ensure DEI was front and center, as no two women looked alike, yet no woman seemed any less excited than the next about what the day would bring. Droves of surprising relaxed businesswomen, all but asking their by-standing male colleges to hold swag and handbags and as they posed for photos, poured into the space that had clearly been designed by and for women. The day started with a networking coffee hour – feeling more of a class reunion as peers and colleagues called to one another from across the room, racing to a center point for warm embraces and quick catch ups. Then, the hour transitioned and attendees were ushered into the banquet hall to greet the day’s emcee, grilled cheese expert, Chef Jamie Gwen, who took to the stage declaring that, per Barbie, “It is the best day ever. So was yesterday, and so is tomorrow, and every day from now until forever”, while dripped in a bright red two-piece number, fabulously styled by Meison Studio, a partner of this year’s symposium.
Hues of red seemed to be the Comerica Bank executive style strategy, as Executive VP and Executive Director of Retail Bank, Cassandra McKinney and Dallas Market President, Amanda Mahaney each rocked their preferred shade. And though the room boasted a plethora of difference, a common goal seemed to be creating pathways for those who had historically been disenfranchised and looked over, as seen by the $80,000 charitable donation made to year’s beneficiary Viola’s House, a Dallas-area provider of maternity housing and support services for homeless teenage mothers facing unexpected pregnancy.
The audience would soon welcome the first speaker panel, featuring a cast of women business owners, brought together under the theme “Power up your potential!” The super diverse, all-women panel, moderated by Emmy Award winning NBC 5 Today Co-Anchor, Laura Harris, dove into the intricacies of launching and running a business as women and women of color, in particular, and featured business baddies, Dr. Froswa´ Booker-Drew, CEO of Soulstice Consultancy, Katie Aung, Executive Chairman of Yummi Sushi and chairwoman GBC Food services and Founder and CEO of HER Texas, Jasmin Brand. This feature panel tapped into both more practical entrepreneurial topics such as harnessing one’s potential by taking personal agency and more personal topics such as self-care and relationships, wherein each panelist humorously walked onlookers through their successes and failures in both.
Almost in perfect timing, the stage opened up to a dancing 3-time Daytime Emmy Award winning Journalist, Gaby Natale, who had to wait for the crowd to regain their composure post-bogie. Natale would tell the story of her arriving in the United States to find the field of journalism all but closed to a female, immigrant journalist with a heavy Argentinian accent and the nerve to refuse traditional weather girl broadcast media roles. A visibly inspired group of women sat, eyes locked on Gaby’s bright pink and orange outfit, ears tuned to her incredible story of starting her news career in a small room she had to paint a shade of light pink herself.
During intermission, an incredibly swaggly-dressed Mariachi Band took a beat to serenade the room in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month and in preparation of what would become the highlight of the day, an interview with Academy Award-Winning Actress and accessibility activist, Marlee Matlin. And of course, because the people at Comerica had seemingly thought of everything, before Marlee ever hit the stage and throughout the day, the audience had been in study, learning and practicing greetings and responses in American sign-language, as to offer an atmosphere fitting for a deaf member of the women’s business community.
Marlee Matin was joined on stage by Eva Saha, who would go on to conduct the interview, Ms. Martin’s longtime language interpreter, Jack Jason, who served as Marlee’s voice, and an ASL interpreter who would serve deaf and hard of hearing members of the audience. The moment, indeed a magical one, was a reminder that accessibility should not only be standard, but that accessibility is also necessary to truly achieve DEI. In that moment, The Children of a Lesser God actress would become the star of the day, going on to let the audience in on how her deafness hadn’t defined her and how she refused to be a victim. While Comerica left women who entered the Pavilion looking to be inspired while on their entrepreneurial journeys with encouragement to tap into their potential by taking agency and using their uniqueness as their super power, Marlee left the crowd with some never-before-heard Hollywood tea, within the stipulations of the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, of course, a tour of her tattoos and their meanings, and a final quote that covered the room in head nods and side-smirks, “If you will it, it’s not a dream.”