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Julia Nepper shares her story of becoming a 23-year-old with a doctorate in biophysics at the Greater Madison Area Chamber of Commerce's annual IceBreaker luncheon on Thursday.

Gen. Marcia Anderson, the first black woman to become a two-star general in U.S. Army history, knows she isn’t what most people imagine when they think of top military brass.

Hence her advice for the hundreds of predominantly white CEOs, bankers, business and nonprofit leaders gathered in the Kohl Center for the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce's annual IceBreaker luncheon on Thursday.

“You will be in a position to hire, mentor and promote amazing people — men and women in your organizations who are innovative, creative and who also possess unlimited potential,” the Beloit native said. “I know this can happen, but only if you are willing to see it.”

Anderson was one of three women of color who shared their own stories of innovation, creating and realizing their potential at the IceBreaker, an event the Chamber organizes to highlight its accomplishments, showcase Wisconsin talent and outline its hopes for the city’s future.

As it has been in prior years, IceBreaker 2018 was a colorful production: This year featured floodlights, a fog machine and giant LCD displays showing slick SportsCenter-esque animations.

Also like past years, the talk bluntly focused on topics related to race and gender.

Chamber president Zach Brandon noted that women of color, like the keynote speakers, face challenges as entrepreneurs and leaders, from discrimination to lack of capital. He said that changing those dynamics in Madison was critical to the city’s economic future.

“This is about an economic imperative,” he said. “(Inequity) is stymieing economic growth.”

While Brandon called attention to those disparities, the event focused on the stories of women with categorically impressive resumes.

Anderson, for her part, told the crowd about the lessons she learned about defying expectations and ducking the labels of others — from surprising elementary school teachers with advanced reading abilities despite having been grouped with the “slow kids,” to demonstrating her leadership potential to drill sergeants who called her “cute” after joining the military.

“Showing up and doing what’s expected is never enough,” she said. “You have to excel.”

Before Anderson spoke, Julia Nepper talked about her journey to becoming a 23-year-old with a doctorate in biophysics. Nepper said that after spending most of her life thriving in academics — she started college at age 11 — she had to grapple with failure when arriving at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for graduate school in 2012.

“For the first time in my life, I wasn’t top of my class,” she recalled. “I was supposed to be learning to be an expert in my field, and I felt like I knew less every day.”

However, she said, she learned that stubbornness was a virtue, and that failure was OK.

“I was the type of person who learned to take pride in my pain,” she said.

Syovata Edari, the lawyer and decorated Madison chocolatier who founded CocoVaa chocolates, talked about combating self-doubt and self-deprecation. Growing up, she said, she used to pretend to be Wonder Woman. She had big dreams, aspiring to open a cosmetics line. However, she began to question those desires.

“I rejected and I felt ashamed of the little girl with grand aspirations,” she said. “I thought, ‘How stupid and arrogant and narcissistic.’ Because in those times, you didn’t see a lot of women, especially women of color, getting credit for doing grand things, so it was assumed that you don’t.”

Since then, she said, she’s discovered her passion of making chocolate — or as she sees it, sharing stories through taste.

“I recreate experiences I have, in taste form. It’s my way of trying to connect my soul with yours,” she said.

Now, she’s learned to try and channel the spirit of her 6-year-old self. She said she’s also learned to fight “epic battles” when they arise. A year ago, Edari was sued by Mars Inc. for trademark infringement. The company alleged “CocoVaa” was too similar to a brand of theirs, CocoaVia.

Edari can’t comment on the case, which ended in a settlement. However, when introducing Edari as a speaker, Brandon encouraged attendees to look at the bags of chocolate they had on their tables. Each was emblazoned with the CocoVaa brand, alive and well.

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Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.