I stepped onto Harvard’s campus on September 23, 2019. No, I wasn’t a bright-eyed freshman, nor was I an academic who had worked her way to the faculty ranks. I was a professional financial advisor who had been invited to speak to the women faculty at the Chan School of Public Health.

I wish I hadn’t showed up four hours early, where I was forced to overhear students from every corner of the world tackle problems of hunger, poverty and disease. Or where I could understand first-hand that these were the elite of the elite. Even worse, I realized I would not be addressing these students, but their professors.

I wondered how I had tricked the universe into believing that I was an expert in women’s financial empowerment. Or how Josiemer Mattei had tracked me down from Harvard while I was on sabbatical in the middle of January, taking an intensive drawing course at the Grand Central Atelier in New York City. I recall it being negative 16 degrees that morning as I was briskly walking to the subway stop, en route to Long Island City. The breath from my mouth froze onto my scarf when suddenly, I saw the email from Josiemer asking if I would be willing to do a seminar for the women faculty sponsored by Harvard Chan’s Committee for the Advancement of Women Faculty.

“Can you specifically develop your talk for a woman in our position?” she asked. Of course, I could, but surely, she had the wrong person. I mean, yes, I am a financial advisor, and I do have a practice devoted primarily to women. But, Harvard? Really?

I didn’t at that time believe the opportunity would actually materialize, but I continued my dialogue with Josiemer over the next nine months as we carefully constructed a fictitious woman who was a faculty member at the Chan School of Public Health.  

On that morning, I made my way out of the lounge and into the lobby where I would be escorted to a conference room on the third floor. I followed along the long corridors, passing the testing lab for infectious disease, staring at photos of people from all over the world. I realized how important this work was. And again, I felt really small.

Finally, I arrived at the conference room, an intimately sized space, perfect for the 15 women who would attend the seminar. I was greeted by Josiemer who at long last gave me a warm and welcoming hug. The A/V person greeted us and bypassed our silly attempts to get the system up and running, beautifully projecting the first slide onto the electronic screen. He handed me the remote control, ensuring me that all would be well. By this time, I was perspiring.

As the attendees entered the room, one by one, I was struck by their youth and disarmed by their warmth. These were real women, just like me. They had the same questions and concerns as the rest of my clients. “Do I need long-term care insurance?” “How much should I be saving?” “When is it enough?”

What I did find different about this group was their amazing attention to the content. And their relentless thirst and capacity for knowledge. I guess there was a reason they were Harvard faculty members. I literally spoke nonstop for three hours. I had planned to give a 10-15-minute break every 50 minutes, resuming at the top of the hour. However, the group repeatedly refused. In fact, at times they would say things like, “No, we only just started” or “No, we only have one hour left.” 

I was literally amazed at their level of interest in every detail, in every anecdote and, most impressively, every graph. These were the graphs during which most of my audiences in previous presentations immediately glazed over. I had considered excluding these graphs for the Harvard group given the length of the presentation. Thank goodness I didn’t.

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