A Unique Virtual Event

The 2020 Voices of Leadership: Celebrating Women's Vote Centennial event took place on Thursday, September 17, 2020. Due to the ongoing public health emergency, Voices of Leadership was held as an online/livestream event. Keynote speaker, Nilofer Merchant, was able to bring her talk, titled, “Onlyness: Find your purpose, your people, your power" to Mount Mary University in a webinar format. The Women's Leadership Institute was able to transform this virtual event into a unique experience that intertwined student projects, event sponsors, and participants with Merchant’s livestream keynote.


Voices of Leadership sponsors typically spend 30 minutes prior to the event networking with Mount Mary University students. Because the event was moved online, the Women's Leadership Institute invited representatives from sponsoring organizations to zoom into class with our Compass Program students to participate in a discussion. Compass Program students are entering their first year of college, and they are undecided about their major. In line with our Voices of Leadership theme, sponsor representatives from Northwestern Mutual, CHR Hansen, and Gustave A. Larson participated in a conversation that explored their "Onlyness" – a term that Merchant coined meaning that place in the world in which only YOU stand, a function of your distinct history and experiences, visions, passions and hopes. In preparation for the class, representatives recalled experiences in their lives, how those experiences shaped them and led them to the point in which they currently stand. Sponsor representatives sharing about their "onlyness" helped the Compass Program students consider their own "onlyness" and how it will help guide them in figuring out where they want to go in life.

The Women's Leadership Institute was able to pivot the typical breakfast buffet to a personally delivered breakfast to sponsors and a Special Event Package to all participants. Junior Dietetics Coordinated Program students developed the breakfast menu to help guests learn how to "fuel a focused mind" through ingredients and nutrients designed to help any individual operate at their fullest potential. Several of these breakfast items were made by the Mount Mary University catering department and delivered to event sponsors. The breakfast menu was developed into a suffrage style recipe book entitled, "Fueling a Focused Mind." As an added benefit, Merchant created an essay to accompany her keynote speech entitled, "Why We Still Haven't Found What We're Looking For." Merchant's essay along with the Dietetics' recipe book, and some Women's Leadership Institute gifts, were sent in a Special Event Package to each Voices of Leadership guest as a thank you for their participation.

Recap of Nilofer Merchant's Keynote


Mount Mary University welcomed author and idea activator Nilofer Merchant as our keynote speaker. Merchant, who spent 25 years in innovation and technology, is a much sought after speaker and the author of three books including 2017's The Power of Onlyness. The Women's Leadership Institute was pleased to have 295 community members, students, faculty, staff, and alumnae join us for Merchant's keynote presentation called “Onlyness:  Find your purpose, your people, your power." 

"P-O-W-E-R-F-U-L!! Wow this was the most candid, transparent yet impactful voice I have heard all year. I literally felt as if she was right there with me, speaking directly to me. What a great choice! Thank YOU ALL for choosing her voice of leadership, especially at a time like this. #Timely #Needed" ~ 2020 Voices of Leadership guest

At this presentation, participants heard Merchant's story and learned about the concept of "onlyness," the term Merchant coined that means that place in the world in which only YOU stand, a function of your distinct history and experiences, visions passions and hopes. Merchant discussed the false narrative that every woman was granted the right to vote in 1920 and examined the difficult truth that the 19th Amendment only granted white women the right to vote. She debated the intersection of women's rights and the rights of people of color during that time. She discussed how, too often, people believe "there is not enough freedom or power or liberty to go around and that we must each go through the turnstile of progress one at a time." She questioned that premise and argued her belief that our fates and destinies are linked and not ranked. This powerful keynote was followed by a discussion and Q&A session with Sally Haldorson, Managing Director of Milwaukee based Porchlight Books. The discussion included questions from the audience.

Key Takeaways

"We have long been shaped by questions that put us at odds with each other. Isn't it time to find a new way, forward, together?" ~ Nilofer Merchant

Merchant's keynote and the discussion that followed brought many ideas and questions forward on how the concept of "onlyness" and how to move that concept forward. Here are the top takeaways from the keynote and following discussion:

  • Embrace the concept of "onlyness" – "Despite decades of research that says innovation emerges from 'left-field' sources, most organizations treated those 'left-field' folks through the lens of otherness... We often don’t get praise for the things that make us distinct but instead the things that make us fit in.” Let's change that narrative and listen to a broader range of perspectives. You never know from whom the next great idea may come. The question to ask isn't, "is that person talented?" The question is, "have we built the scaffolding and systems to allow that person to contribute?"
  • Work together to advance common interests – Merchant writes "It's not enough to fight for one's own voice, at the cost of others...we must learn to show up to something bigger than just our own private interests." In the discussion that followed the keynote, Haldorson noted that "Onlyness should not be conflated with selfishness or singularity but instead, it serves to connect people rather than to isolate or 'other' people."
  • Ask broader questions – "Questions frame and shape a conversation, inform what possibilities are even considered, and so direct our attention to what's next. Ask a limiting question and everyone's attention is directed to limited ideas. Ask a generative question and the possibilities open. Questions direct destiny."

Campus Connections: Learn More About Our Student Projects

The Women's Leadership Institute's Voices of Leadership event is about more than bringing a leader to campus to learn from her experiences. It's also an opportunity for our faculty to utilize the themes of the keynote to enhance the curriculum and explore these different topics with students in a way that is relevant to their disciplines. Learn about the course collaborations that were a part of this year's Voices of Leadership event here:


3 Dimension Design

Art therapy




Interior Design

Media Studies