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Women's Conference

Collage of photos from past conferences

Empowering Women Conference

Get inspired. Build momentum. Expand your networks.

Miss America Camille Shrier speaks as large screens hang behind her with her photo for the Miss America title.
Miss America Camille Schrier

Miss America Camille Schrier encouraged women to not be afraid to forge their own paths as she spoke Wednesday at the Virginia Tech Southwest Center’s annual Empowering Women conference in Abingdon.

“I seized the opportunity to compete in Miss Virginia. I was just going to try it, and it led me down an incredible path that I would have never expected,” said Schrier, a 2018 Virginia Tech graduate. Competing to become Miss America, she decided to do “something different” and focused on what really represented her for the talent portion of the competition, wowing the judges with an explosive on-stage chemistry demonstration.

“Don’t be complacent. Don’t do just what everyone else is doing just because everyone else is. Be sure you are actively choosing exactly who you are and what you want to do,” she said.

Schrier warned against doing something simply because it “looks good” and is expected. Just out of high school she chased prestige in a lucrative field but found herself foundering in an academic environment that didn’t fit. After transferring to Virginia Tech and switching majors, she earned degrees in systems biology and biochemistry, which shadowed her own interests in genetics and pharmaceuticals. She is now pursuing a doctor of pharmacy degree.

About 80 women gathered at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center or attended virtually for the conference, which aims to motivate, inspire, and encourage women to develop the skills to become leaders, start their own businesses, and encourage other women in their communities.

Other speakers touched on topics that included:

  • Internet Safety.
  • The Power of Play to Reduce Stress, Strengthen Relationships, and Improve Problem-Solving Skills.
  • Starting, Marketing, and Financing a Successful Business.
  • Resilience and Relationships: Building Through Narrative Storytelling.
  • Influence Without Authority. 
  • Mindfulness in the Midst of Chaos.
  • Turning into Your Inner Goddess: Yoga and the Road to Wellness.

“This conference encouraged women to be the best versions of themselves – no matter their age or career path – through hearing the stories of other women living their best lives,” said Penny McCallum, director of the Virginia Tech Southwest Center.

Julie Walters Steele laughs as she speaks at the podium with a screen behind her that reads "What's adulting anyway?"
Participants sit at tables spread out in a large room as a woman speaks remotely shown on three large screens hanging from the ceiling.
A woman in a blue and white dress.
Presenter Lesa Hanlin speaks into a microphone.
Two women sit at a table taking notes.
Miss America Camille Schrier looks up toward the ceiling as she speaks on stage.

Past presenters have included:

Sandy is the assistant vice president and community impact advisor of Virginia Community Capital Inc. She is a seasoned economic developer with nearly 30 years of experience serving the commonwealth of Virginia. She works with new and exciting businesses to offer startup consulting, entrepreneurial growth mentoring, support community revitalization. She assists businesses to identify sources of capital to move their business plan forward.

Tracy is from Grundy, Virginia, and a graduate of Concord College in Athens, West Virginia. She then moved to South Carolina and started an interior design business and established elite clientele. Moving back to her roots, Tracy now lives in Lebanon, Virginia, where she is the owner of Highlands Farms, which produces organic tomatoes for commericial use. She is also a cookbook author and publisher of Table and Home Design magazine.

Jonya is a Bristol, Virginia, native who comes from a family of entrepreneurs. She is a professional organizer and a 200-hour certified yoga instructor. Jonya has combined her gifts and love for organizing, yoga, and fitness into a company named Sorted Wellness. Combining forces with her cousin, Cindy Gardner, she opened Breathe Bristol Yoga in July 2017. It's all about wellness for your body, mind, and home.

Lesa is the manager of business and executive programs at Northern Virginia Community College and former executive director Roanoke Regional Intiatives for Virginia Tech. Lesa, a former educator, brings expanded expertise that goes beyond the typical academic, small-business owner, or nonprofit leader. Her experience as a teacher and school principal taught her how to think on her feet and harness the power of community connections. 

Susan is the director of the Virginia Tech Richmond and Hampton Roads centers. She works to connects the resources of Virginia Tech to the Richmond region, driving economic development and professional development initiatives. 

Wynonah is originally from Castlewood, Virginia, but found her way to Sydney, Australia. She is the project manage at FIRST Australia, Macquarie University, in Sydney. She is a vocalist/songwriter and entertainer. She is also a Reiki Master Teacher and L.E.V. I. Mentor. Previously employed with Virginia Tech and University of Virginia at Wise, Wynohah has not forgotten her roots in Southwest Virginia.

Kelly Smith is the co-host of "Ozarks Fox AM." She started a music career in Branson, Missouri, on "The Baldknobbers."  Later, she was the “Voice of Cher” in the ABC movie “As the Beat Goes On” and traveled all over the U.S. and the world as Cher, Shania Twain, and Olivia Newton John. She also was a co- host of "Ozarks Live" television show, before moving to morning television.

Melinda Hill’s educational background has been focused in the areas of leadership, coaching, and counseling. She holds a doctorate in higher education and organizational change, a master’s degree in counselor education, and a bachelor’s degree in organizational management. She is also a graduate of the Executive and Professional Coaching Program from the University of Texas at Dallas and is a certified coach, speaker, and trainer with the John Maxwell Team. 

Melinda is currently serving as Upward Bound Project Advisor for Virginia Tech TRIO Programs. Her experience serving underrepresented students populations led her to create a coaching model designed to help students reach and exceed their educational goals.

As a coach, Melinda is supporting and encouraging. She has a unique ability to support her students while holding them accountable for their desired outcomes. Teamwork is what makes the dream work when coaching with Dr. Melinda.

Heather Askea is the instructional technology coordinator, online learning support specialist, and adjunct professor of education for the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Heather holds a bachelor of arts degree with Virginia teaching endorsements PK-8 from UVA Wise, a master’s of education from UVA and is currently pursuing her doctoral degree from Boise State University. For the past 11 years, she has designed and implemented hundreds of online and traditional professional learning courses as well as taking the lead in planning several local conferences. Heather serves as the vice-chairwoman of the Virgina Society for Technology in Education’s Board of Directors. She is a passionate advocate for educational technology and online learning supports for children and educators, serving as the chairwoman of the VSTE Advocacy Committee.

Julie Walters Steele is director of the Virginia Tech Reynolds Homestead in Critz, where she manages the Community Engagement Center and the historic Rock Spring Plantation, birthplace of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds (RJR Tobacco Company) and A.D. Reynolds, whose son Richard S. Reynolds was the founder of Reynolds Metals.

During the past seven years, Julie has initiated a growth in programs and services at Reynolds Homestead in an effort to support a creative economy in Patrick County and surrounding communities. Before moving to Patrick County, Julie worked in community building roles on the campuses of Virginia Tech; Western Carolina University; and her alma mater, Clemson University.

An active volunteer within the universities and communities she serves, Julie enjoys developing collaborative partnerships that affect positive change and build stronger communities.