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Most of us have had the experience of getting a job. That’s considerably different when the job is to be the CEO of a major corporation, or chief counsel of a huge healthcare provider, or a renowned business coach.

But the first three speakers at NJBIA’s Women’s Business Leaders Forum, held today in Long Branch, shared insights into how they did it.  Because the forum isn’t about helping women get jobs; it’s about helping women get top jobs.

“They each are going to share with us lessons from life, lessons for us to take home and to remember long after today is gone,” said Karen Kessler, president of Evergreen Partners, who introduced them for a TED Talk style presentation.

Today, Gina Tokar is vice president of Panasonic System Solutions Company of North America. But she started out like many of us: She graduated college and needed to find a job. She went to work for a tech company. But rather than just doing her job, she set herself apart from the rest: She learned everything she could about the company and volunteered for the unsavory projects no one else wanted anything to do with.

“I was full of fear and lacked confidence, but I learned through natural networking and my natural capabilities, and I stopped fearing and stopped worrying about being a woman, and just be the best I could be.”

Dee C. Marshall had already made it. She was a top employee at a major financial firm, working at One New York Plaza and training million-dollar earners.  Then came the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

She spent the rest of the day figuring out how to get out of the building and off the island in one piece. It wasn’t until the next morning that she confronted that magnitude of what she had experienced. And it changed everything for her.

“The one question that was presented to me that I want to give to you,” she said. “If I died yesterday, would I have any regrets?”

She presented that question at a business conference because everyone has something that has happened in their lives that makes them question their direction. For Marshall, that day forced her to find meaning and purpose for her life.

“I remember thinking, I refuse to go back to Wall Street,” she said. “I refuse to be average, status quo, and mediocre.”

Today, she is the CEO of Diverse & Engaged and coaches professionals across the country.

Taking advantage of opportunities is an obvious way to get ahead, so why do so many people let them slip away?

For Audrey Murphy, chief legal officer for Hackensack Meridian Health, the answer is simple: They don’t see them. She experienced that when she decided to move from being a nursing manager to becoming a clinical specialist, a move that would require going back to school for a master’s degree. But rather than cheering her, her co-workers asked, why would you want to do that?

It’s understandable, Murphy said. She already had a good job and everything was comfortable, so people did not understand why she would change. She had a similar experience years later when she decided to get her law degree. But she knew that these were the right career moves for her.

“Don’t always expect that people will champion you,” she said.  “That has to be an opportunity that you’re willing to take on and be supportive of yourself.

“Sometimes we expect a lot more from other people than they can deliver,” she said.

NJBIA President and CEO Michele Siekerka kicked off the event by applying this year’s theme, “Owning Your Success,” to the forum itself. Five years ago, NJBIA kicked off its first Women Business Leaders Forum, and “I’m pleased to tell you this morning that as this event as progressed, so have women in the C-Suite,” Siekerka said.

“The forum is about our professional growth. It’s our personal capacity that we have built as a group over the last five years,” Siekerka said. “And we have had an impact. Because as our personal capacity has grown, so has our presence in the C-suite.”

Siekerka pointed to this year’s Heidrick & Struggles Board Monitor report, which showed that a record 183 women were appointed to vacant or newly created board seats of U.S. Fortune 500 companies last year, a 34% increase over the 137 appointed in 2017.

At this rate, corporate boards will reach parity in time for the 11th annual Women Business Leaders Forum.