Not All Women’s Conferences Are the Same

Brian Brady, one of the organizers of the UConn conference, holds an on-topic ice cream cake at the celebratory dinner following the event.

The New York Times recently remarked on the rising popularity of American conferences about women’s empowerment. However, the article short-sightedly attributed this trend to media companies looking for a gimmick to shore up flagging revenues—the writer only seemed to know about events hosted by Forbes, Time, Cosmo, and an assortment of media personalities like Arianna Huffington.  Not much time had been spent researching the piece, so the conclusions were superficial.  And the perspective was painfully out of date:  the author noted with surprise that young women are interested in these events. I guess this person had not spoken to anyone under 30 about women’s issues in about ten years. One expects more from the New York Times.

The newspaper did at least accurately note that the electricity in the air at such gatherings suggests a new groundswell in the women’s movement. In truth, the “women’s empowerment conference” is an international phenomenon.  The events are more often led by universities, foundations, NGOs, and governments than by media companies. There is a great deal of variation in themes, participants, and purposes. For instance, our own Power Shift: The Oxford Forum for Women in the World Economy is focused on policy and partnerships among institutions and individuals working to empower women—rich and poor– worldwide, while Womensphere is more of a networking and inspirational gathering for prosperous female entrepreneurs, mostly in America.

This week, in London, representatives from southern governments and international NGOs will gather under the wings of Oxfam and the Department for International Development to talk about multisectoral approaches to women’s empowerment in agriculture. An important upcoming event is the October 28  Women of the Future summit, hosted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom, at which representatives from over 25 countries, including delegates from Chile, South Africa, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, India, China, USA, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia and Japan, will discuss emergent trends in women’s leadership. (I will be speaking on the Double X Economy!) In November, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Women conference focuses on legal rights for women. This event, too, is global in perspective and draws speakers and participants from all over the world.

Jenny Lawton, CEO of Makerbot, and I teamed up for the lunchtime keynote, a discussion moderated by Pat Carroll of WCBS News Radio.

A few weeks back, I had the privilege of keynoting at the University of Connecticut’s “Connecticut Celebrates Women Entrepreneurs,” held in Stamford. This was a more locally-focused gathering, aimed at disseminating information about the support systems available for women entrepreneurs through the State of Connecticut, including the state university system. However, it also provided opportunities for women to purchase goods and services from each other. There were women of all ages, as well as from business, government, and NGOs, in attendance. As is often the case, the conference provided a platform for discussing problems businesswomen share, particularly gender-based barriers to success. All these activities do tend to produce a shared sense of purpose and an emergent solidarity among those in attendance.

From left: Iva Kaufman, Donnetta Campbell, me, Anne Ravanona, Valarie Gelb, and Jeanne Sullivan.

The UConn event was led by two friends and close colleagues of mine, Valarie Gelb and Brian Brady. Both of them are very active in promoting and supporting women’s entrepreneurship, all year round. There are a few people who speak often at these conferences; however,  for the most part, there is not much overlap in either speakers or audiences because of the variation in themes the conferences address and the localities in which they are held. In fact, I was surprised and thrilled to see several people from Power Shift at the UConn event.  And I also saw some old friends from Criterion Institute’s Convergence, which focuses on gender lens investing. Jeanne Sullivan, the high-powered venture capital crusader, was there along with Donnetta Campbell, the social media maven who has been building an amazingly powerful online community around the topic of women’s empowerment. It was a special treat to see Anne Ravanona, who flew in from Paris. GlobalInvestHer, an online resource for female entrepreneurs, is Anne’s brainchild. Iva Kaufman, who does such great work for the American Sustainable Business Council, is always full of new ideas.

Claire Leonardi speaking at Connecticut Celebrates Women Entrepreneurs, while Valarie Gelb and Brian Brady listen.

Any gathering of women entrepreneurs will eventually turn to the question of capital–a topic that tends to foreground the uneven economic playing field for females, in much the same way that pay inequality does. One of the opening speakers at UConn, Claire Leonardi, CEO of Connecticut Innovations, called attention to a new US Senate study, showing that women own nearly a third of American small businesses, but get less than 5% of conventional business loans.  This fact reminded me of a discussion we had the previous week at the Women-Owned Business Advisory Council (WOBAC) meeting for Walmart.  We recognized that women’s difficulty getting loans is not all about their lack of credit-readiness, but is largely a function of old-fashioned prejudices among bankers–who don’t seem to know how to find female clients despite the many conferences devoted to women’s entrepreneurship!

I bought this beautiful necklace (and the earrings and ring to match) from Serai, a women-owned business at the conference. I will wear all three to the DfID/Oxfam gig on Wednesday!

A key recommendation coming out of that Senate study was to develop online crowd funding so that women would be able to circumvent the conventional system.  So, I made a point of attending a terrific session on crowd funding at the UConn event.  The session was led by Jane Applegate, director of strategic partnerships at Plum Alley, an organization dedicated to helping women raise capital, especially through crowd funding.  I learned a lot in this session. Already, the crowd funding scene is segmented into projects funded by large numbers of ordinary people, such as you find on KickStarter, and specialized qualified investor projects, supported by groups like Angel Fund. Two entrepreneurs on the panel told their success stories, each of them having used a different approach.  It seemed to me that a huge and important pathway for women was opening up with this crowd funding alternative.  And, it did seem to me that if the conventional banks don’t get over their prejudices, a major disintermediation is likely to emerge.  Some days I wonder if banks will go the way of bookstores and video rental shops.

The globalisation of the women’s economy was visible in the little stalls where entrepreneurs were selling their goods–all kinds of things designed in one place, produced in another, now sold at a university in Connecticut.  I bought some gorgeous jewelry from a pair of Turkish sisters.  They design their pieces in a Turkish aesthetic, then one sister produces the jewelry in Istanbul and the other sells it in America (and online).

Jeanne Sullivan, Anne Ravanona, Iva Kaufman, and Valarie Gelb cook up world change while preparing dinner.

Much of what is important at women’s conferences–as at any kind of conference–goes on behind the scenes and after hours.  A group of people from Power Shift, Convergence, and UConn had dinner together that evening at Donnetta Campbell’s place (several who were there had pub-hopped together in Oxford last May).  As we collectively prepared dinner at  the huge island in the kitchen, Donnetta’s teenage daughter Lucy and her friends were making soap to sell for an initiative supporting girls’ self-esteem.  Later, we sat around the table talking over everything we had learned during the day, but we also brainstormed about what the theme for next year’s Power Shift should be, as well as making plans to meet again and promises to introduce each other to key people with shared interests.  In this fashion, the conferences and the people behind them do knit together and the overall landscape does begin to look like a movement.

Who says the young don’t care about women’s issues? Donnetta’s daughter Lucy (center) and her friends were making soaps for their girls’ self-esteem campaign right in the same kitchen with all of us.

So, here is the word for the New York Times. Yes, there is a big surge of interest in women’s conferences, but they are not primarily a means of ratcheting up media revenue.  Yes, there is something of a movement emerging that has more scope and energy than we have seen since the 1970s.  No, all the conferences are not alike–any more than the hundreds of conferences attended by men are all alike.  There is indeed a notable level of interest among young women; however, this is not a reversal of consciousness.  It has been at least a decade since young women rejected the women’s movement–this is a new generation and they are more dedicated to the cause than anyone has seen in 50 years. However, the new movement is a cross-generational effort, as well as an international, multisectoral one.  It would be great if media voices like the New York Times would catch up with the reality of what is happening.  The world is going to change and somebody should be reporting the process a bit more thoughtfully.

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