Photos by Shaun Sanders

Virtual Enterprises International’s (VEI) mission to transform students by providing real-world business experiences in the classroom and beyond specifically supported young women on November 18, 2022, when over 100 VE students from the tri-state area attended the organization’s bi-annual Winning Women Leadership Conference. Sponsored by Deloitte and held at its corporate headquarters in Rockefeller Center, students spent the day receiving professional insights and mentoring from more than 30 women business leaders in finance, insurance, media, education, retail, advertising, and banking industries.

“I see the brilliance in this room,” said VEI President M. Ali Shama in his welcome remarks to attendees. “I am excited for your future, and I am honored that you are VE students.”

Offering networking opportunities, a panel discussion, leadership coaching and mentoring roundtables, Winning Women is a day-long, early career development program specifically for young women enrolled in the VE program and serving in leadership roles. 

Through Winning Women and numerous other events and offerings, one of VEI’s aims is inclusivity, including developing more females actively pursuing business careers and entrepreneurship. According to the latest Census survey*, only 19.9 percent of all U.S. firms that employ people are women-owned. In the VE program, half of the simulated student businesses are led by women.

“Since its inception, the Winning Women Leadership Conference has been well-received not only by our students and educators but by the generous volunteers and partners who have supported the event and make it such a rich experience,” said VEI Founder Iris Blanc. “By providing opportunities for professional and personal growth of our youth through events like this, we hope to inspire and empower our female students to become future business leaders and entrepreneurs.”

After kicking off with a student icebreaker, the day started with a leadership coaching session, where students learned the importance of their personal brand, professional presence and communication skills. These topics were discussed more intimately and in-depth later in the day through mentor roundtable sessions.

A panel discussion moderated by Carol Anne Riddell, a host and reporter for CUNY TV, who served as facilitator for the event, followed. 

“I was an education reporter for many years and feel that education is the game changer in a person’s life,” said Riddell, an active VE volunteer. “I was struck by the number of young women in the VE program who were excited and engaged in this conference.”

Carol Anne Riddell

Laura Wang

Laura Wang, a panelist and also a 14-year VE volunteer, described the event as a sort of sisterhood.  “Usually, there isn’t a rapport when you’re a professional on a panel, but with this event, we let ourselves be very honest and open and shared advice and situations we’ve encountered,” said Wang, a product development leader for Capital One. “I was so impressed to hear how mature and thoughtful the students’ questions were. They’re already at such a high level because of this program. It gives me a lot of hope.”

One of the students in attendance, a junior from Francis Lewis High School in Queens, is taking the VE course for the first time. “The Winning Women environment was so encouraging, and I felt much more comfortable to be with other women who were also interested in discussing their goals,” she said. “It was very motivating and inspiring.” 

Following the panel discussion and lunch, breakout groups focused on challenging the students to develop a personal brand, prepare for important new business pitches, and how they handle challenging business situations. 

Tom Smith, a managing director at Deloitte who has supported VE for over 12 years as a mentor, competition judge, and VE event coordinator, shared his excitement for the program and Deloitte’s standing as one of the best places to work for women. He advised the students, “Expect to be respected and heard.  Expect people to want what is best for the business, and then be what is best for the business!”

Maria Frangos, a five-year VE facilitator from West Orange High School in New Jersey, attended the event with five of her students. “Very often, my students come into the VE program unable to differentiate between a credit card, a debit card, or a checking account,” Frangos said. “There’s a huge difference in them before and after they take the VE program.”

For Frangos, the event’s big payoff came moments after her class boarded the bus for the return trip home. “The CEO of our VE student firm said, ‘I’m so inspired – I’m going to be a real CEO one day,’” Frangos recollected. “The other girls said they would be reaching out to people to be their mentors and start creating their business profile. When they hear how important these things are from role models, it really hits home.”


*Census Bureau’s Annual Business Survey (ABS)