and Coca-Cola Executives Headline Women’s Leadership Conference

Chancellor Jacquie Moloney with Bonnie Comley '81 Image by Tory Germann
Chancellor Jacquie Moloney with alumna Bonnie Comley, who gave the keynote speech at the Women's Leadership Conference.

By Katharine Webster

Be bold, fail fast and always have a Plan B – “It’s called Plan B because it’s what’s meant to be” – Bonnie Comley, an award-winning Broadway producer and the founder of, told a sold-out crowd at the 2017 Women’s Leadership Conference.

Comley ’81, a first-generation college graduate with deep roots in Lowell, gave the opening keynote Tuesday in a conversation with Chancellor Jacquie Moloney

Moloney gave her a glowing introduction, citing Comley’s career as a Broadway producer, her three Tony Awards, her generous contributions – the Comley-Lane Theater is named for Comley and her husband and business partner, Stewart Lane – and her innovation in starting, still the only live-streaming service to bring Broadway shows into people’s homes.

Comley joked that people always talk about successes and never about failures. 

“We always love to do those highlights,” she said.

But failure is built into every success story, she said. She learned that from her parents: Her dad left a steady job as an elevator mechanic at the university and decided, with her mom, to start their own elevator business. She saw them figure out what worked and what didn’t, and how to move ahead after failure.

“Failure wasn’t something to be ashamed of,” she said. “I grew up with risk-takers, but they were taking calculated risks.”

Women at all ages and stages of their careers at UML's Women's Leadership Conference Image by Tory Germann
Women of all ages and career stages attended the second annual Women's Leadership Conference.
Comley decided to major in business, even though the ratio of men to women business majors at the university was 8:1. Her classes here gave her the fundamental skills and support to succeed and taught her how to be the only woman in the room, a situation she still faces on an almost daily basis, she said.

She attributed her success to being flexible, planning for some failures, trying not to take those failures personally – even though terrible reviews can be devastating – and hiring people who are good team players.

Comley’s message was amplified by Therese Gearhart, the president of Coca-Cola Co.’s Latin American business unit. In the closing keynote, a conversation with Asst. Prof. of Business Elizabeth Altman, Gearhart told women to communicate clearly – and stop apologizing for everything.

“Have you ever heard a male colleague come into the room and start apologizing?” said Gearhart, who overseas Coca-Cola’s operations in 31 countries. “Be fearless in your own journey, and be fearless in bringing another woman along.”

She also emphasized being present in the moment, even when it’s difficult. Her own wake-up call – literally – came after she was injured in a car accident and then woke up in a hospital with amnesia. 

Coca-Cola's Therese Gearhart spoke at the 2017 UML Women's Leadership Conference Image by Tory Germann
Therese Gearhart, president of Coca-Cola's Latin American business unit, answers a question.
“On that day, I realized you don’t necessarily control your life, and you’d better live every moment in the moment,” she said. “I have a ‘No regrets’ policy.”

Gearhart’s journey started in a rural Pennsylvania town, then at lower-level jobs as she worked her way through college and graduate school. She went on to work at Black & Decker, Motorola – where she met Altman – and finally Coca-Cola. Working in various international divisions at Coca-Cola, she has moved with her family to Costa Rica, Turkey, South Africa and now back to Costa Rica. 

She didn’t seek out any of those moves, but got them through networking and then chose opportunities that would allow her to move up into a bigger role.

Gearhart also had lots of practical advice for women at the conference: Journal to keep your priorities straight. Be clear in job interviews about what you want, including flextime and performance-based evaluations. Communicate often and clearly at work and at home. Be confident in your role and the value you add. Manage your time well and protect your days off. Have a strong support system. Adjust your housecleaning standards.

And find an employer whose values match your own. Gearhart says she feels fortunate to work with Coca-Cola, which invests in clean water and economic empowerment for women in developing countries.

Women networking at the 2017 UML Women's Leadership Conference Image by Tory Germann
Women networking at the conference.
In between the two keynotes, more than 300 women attended breakout sessions on everything from practical skills – including public speaking, financial planning and networking – to navigating career transitions.

Kiran Varma, a marketing and management professor at M.O.P. Vaishnav College for Women in Chennai, India, said she enjoyed identifying her leadership style and learning about other styles at the interactive “Strengths-Based Leadership” workshop. 

“My style is participatory and coaching,” said Varna, who became chairwoman of her academic department three years ago. “I lead a group of young subordinates. I’m not bossy, because young people don’t like ‘boss’ – they like ‘coach’ and ‘friend.’”