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Elevating Women to Elevate Humanity

How one local Harvard-educated lawyer became a champion for women's empowerment

Picture Las Vegas in early fall when the weather is still warm, the kids are back in school, and women from all walks of life descend upon the MGM Grand Conference Center to invest in their own leadership education. For two days, women (and some men) are surrounded by highly accomplished women who serve as role models focusing on practical, actionable steps for developing competencies and skills in leadership.

The Women’s Leadership Conference, known as “WLC,” debuted in 2007 but at that time was called The Women of Color Conference. It was started by a collaboration of diverse women from the ethnic chambers of commerce and the MGM Resorts corporate responsibility team to share common experiences and overcome workplace and community impediments.

Phyllis A. James, then MGM Resorts Chief Diversity and Corporate Responsibility Officer, took over the conference in 2010, changed its name to WLC, and refocused the conference to making women from all communities more competitive for advancement through lifelong career development strategy and leadership skills education. 

James, a Harvard Law School graduate and lawyer by profession, says we need WLC now more than ever. “The job of a leader is harder than it has ever been before as organizations face unprecedented crisis and change. There’s a new challenge every day.” 

James understands what it’s like to be at the top, as the first African American partner at her former top-tier corporate law firm, the first woman appointed City of Detroit Corporation Counsel, and the first African American female executive in a Las Vegas Strip C-Suite. And she also knows what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. In 2019, James created a 501(c)3 called FWLE-the Foundation for Women’s Leadership and Empowerment. The nonprofit provides affordable, high-quality leadership education (primarily for women) all year long, including WLC, the signature event in the fall.

Some of the core issues addressed at WLC include the following:

1)      The aspiration gap — James says women don’t see themselves as potential leaders because they don’t see people who look like them in dominant roles. She says showcasing accomplished women on stage at WLC supports the theory that ‘if you see it, you can be it.’

2)      The skills gap — James says building fundamental leadership skills boosts qualifications, promotability, and self-confidence.

3)      The networking gap — James says building a network of beneficial relationships can give you a competitive edge in taking your career and your net worth to the next level. WLC provides a safe space to practice networking skills.

Over WLC’s 15-year span, the lineup of prominent, successful women leaders spotlighted on its main stage is quite impressive. The list includes Suze Orman, Soledad O’Brien, Lisa Ling, Nelly Galán, and many more.

WLC is a labor of love for Phyllis A. James, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. She admits she’s cut from a different cloth because of her specialized background and training but says she had to work twice as hard as an African American woman at every stage of her career.

She emphasizes, “Perseverance is essential. There may never be an ending (to her crusade), but on the journey we can build better work cultures, better businesses, and a better society.” And James loves this quote from Coretta Scott King, “Women, if the soul of the nation is to be saved, I believe that you must become its soul.”

WLC 2023 will take place on September 18 and 19, 2023, at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas. Register and learn important conference updates at Elevating Women to Elevate Humanity.

  • Phyllis A. James-Founding President & CEO of Foundation for Women's Leadership & Empowerment (FWLE)