Professional Women’s Conference celebrates authenticity and empathy

Moderator Kristin Seay and Allison Ausband, executive vice president and chief customer experience officer for Delta Air Lines, answers audience questions at the Professional Womens Conference.

Whether you answer phones at a call center or make tough calls in a corner office, the empathy and authenticity you bring to work matters. 

That’s a lesson Allison Ausband, executive vice president and chief customer experience officer for Delta Air Lines, learned early in her career as a young Delta flight attendant. 

She was still on probation as a new employee when she encountered the rudest Delta passenger she ever met. The woman was so mean that Ausband remembers retreating to the plane’s galley to count backward from 1,000 to keep her cool, she told the crowd at the UGA Terry College of Business Professional Women’s Conference on Nov. 10. 

“I went back out and got on eye level with this customer. And what I learned from her at that moment was we were carrying her son in his casket in the hold of the airplane,” Ausband said. “The lesson I learned at that moment is every single person who steps into one of our airports or walks across the threshold of that airplane is on a journey. This was the worst day of this mother’s life. Shame on me or us if we didn’t try to make it just a little bit easier for her.”

Ausband (ABJ ’83) became a flight attendant in 1985, holding many customer relationship roles at Delta since. In her relatively new position as chief customer experience officer, she works to ensure the spirit of empathy and connection impacts the experience of every Delta customer. She set the tone for this year’s Professional Women’s Conference with her keynote, “Culture Keepers: Putting Servant Leadership at the Heart of an Organization.”

The Terry College has hosted the conference since 2010, with event proceeds establishing the Mary Virginia Terry Student Support Fund. To date, $65,000 has been awarded to 26 students. 

In addition to the opportunity to support young women soon entering the corporate world, conference attendees often use it as a chance to focus on personal development and reset their priorities for the new year.

Kishshana Palmer, an author and leadership coach focusing on helping people lean into their authentic selves, told attendees to self-reflect and rely on their strengths.

“I want you to think about ‘How do I use my strengths to make a difference in the folks around me and their lives,’” Palmer said. “How do we leverage the things that we are gifted in and gifted with to change the trajectory of our careers and our lives?”

UGA Entrepreneurship Program alumni Kristen Dunning — founder of Gently Soap — and Vanessa Sachs — founder of SWAKE cosmetics — shared the importance of authenticity and vulnerability in building new brands during a panel on entrepreneurship.

Stephanie Stuckey, Stuckey’s CEO and granddaughter of Sylvester Stuckey, spoke of how she leaned into the history and original purpose of her grandfather’s company when setting out to revive the nostalgic brand. Her grandpa’s saying, “Every traveler is a friend,” kept surfacing, and she realized that was the ethos she wanted to see in the company as she rebuilt it. 

A former state representative and sustainability lawyer, she launched a new career in her 50s when she bought Stuckey’s for $500,000 in 2019. She overcame years of mismanagement and more than $600,000 in corporate debt to reinvent the iconic roadside pit stop company as a Georgia-grown pecan snack brand. The company now employs 175 people in peak season and had more than $10 million increase in sales.

“Every traveler is still a friend,” Stuckey said. “I get at least a photo a day, at least. I have hundreds of photos of people who pull over at Stuckey’s — all ages, families, all races, ethnicities — and they’re discovering our brand or rediscovering our brand. Like my grandfather said, ‘Every traveler is a friend.’ Nothing meaningful is achieved without our sense of purpose.”