“The work continues. We can never be complacent.”
–First Lady Michelle Obama in response to Oprah’s question about the one take away she wants the audience to have from the Summit.
Cindy Drakeman, CEO of DoubleXEconomy, attended the White House United State of Women Summit on June 14.
This was a resonant note to conclude on and could just as easily have been the opening salvo of a day that was equal parts celebration and stark reminder of the work remaining to create a better and more just world for women. After 11 hours of wall to wall programming, I can say that while the Summit was ostensibly an opportunity for the Obama administration to burnish its legacy on women’s rights, it also served to highlight just how big and diverse a community has developed around this issue. It can be easy to feel like we are fighting a million uphill battles in isolation, but having the visual of thousands of warriors for women in a room together gave the impression that not only has progress been made, but continued progress will be inevitable so long as we continue to agitate and come together in strength.
The Summit kicked off with a rather intimidating line around the convention center leading to a security screening run by the actual TSA in tandem with Secret Service (perhaps the only benefit of a broken foot is the instant VIP pass it offered to the head of every line).
Tablemates on Table 462 included Syreeta McFadden from The Guardian, Hannah Giorgis from Buzz Feed, Cindy Drakeman from DoubleXEconomy, Amy Gibson Grant from The Ad Council, Charlotte Kea from the Peace Corps, Veronica Hix from Onaben
Energy in the room was high as the morning began with a stirring performance of the National Anthem by the Children of the Gospel choir. All around me, people were pouring over the thick program brochure. Details of the event were scarce leading up to the Summit, and we were all eager to find out what awaited us. It was an extraordinarily ambitious program, featuring more than 200 presenters. This might have seemed ill advised (and the day did end many hours behind schedule), but the quality of speakers was so high that it was hard to find a moment to sneak off to the all gender rest room (inclusivity was a strong sub-theme) or explore the exhibitor hall. The presenters ranged from the remarkable 11 year old Mikaila Ulmer, Founder and CEO of Me & the Bees Lemonade (who told the President it was no big deal to introduce him to an audience of 5,000 because she had addressed an 11,000 strong event the week before), to celebrities like Mariska Hargitay and Kerry Washington, the entire leadership of the administration, a plenary panel featuring Dina Habib Powell and Warren Buffett, a variety of performers, activists, and business leaders, and, of course, Oprah, whose interview of the First Lady somehow had the feeling of a fireside chat even in the midst of the massive main hall. The tragedy in Orlando was ever present, frequently acknowledged as an example of why we must continue to show compassion and courage in the face of intolerance.
Dina Habib Powell of Goldman Sachs and Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway discuss his belief in the importance of empowering women.
Vice President Biden, gave the first of the administration’s keynotes and offered a mix of prepared remarks and what seemed to be off the cuff personal experiences from his decades long commitment to the Violence Against Women Act. He asserted that by empowering women “we free humanity” and that we can’t just pass laws, we must change the culture. His confessional style emboldened others later in the day, such as Andrea Ritchie, a self-described “black lesbian police misconduct attorney” who spontaneously declared in her panel remarks that she, herself, had been a victim of police brutality, but had never shared that experience in public before. Her standing ovation was thunderous.
The President acknowledged that we were “really here to see Michelle.”
When President Obama took the stage after lunch, he opened strong – “This is what a feminist looks like” – and then got down to the business of the day, underscoring the efforts he had undertaken throughout his Presidency to create more opportunities for women, and throwing down a gauntlet to the next President by outlining the many things still to come such as equal pay, maternity and paternity (that got big applause) leave, paid sick leave, and getting more women into office to bring their influence to bear. In the meantime, he urged all of us to start doing as much as we could without waiting for Congress.
Amazingly, after the President’s speech, we still had 18 speakers to go before the second break out, so I seized the moment and went to explore the exhibitor’s hall with my new conference BFF, Charlotte Kea from the Peace Corps.
We met Francis Perkins, courtesy of the Department of Labor:
I went to Mars with NASA:
And we made a flipfoto for the National Partnership for Women & Families:
Attendance at the second break out session (now 5pm rather than the 2:50 it was scheduled for) was substantially lower as attendees peeled away, desperate to check email, chat with new friends, and make phone calls. The session I attended, Learning Without Limits: Transcending Barriers to Girls’ Education Globally, was the first time all day we were asked to do something concrete when Christina Lowery of Girl Rising told everyone to take out their phones and sign the 62 Million Girls pledge.
The first White House Summit on the United State of Women was surely a great success for its organizers – a vast panoply of leaders, activists, and practitioners came together from all over the country to celebrate the Obama administration’s efforts to empower women. Such a public demonstration of support for these issues is invaluable, and will ideally have the effect of building momentum and seeing further advances in the next administration.
It did feel like a missed opportunity that the audience was never asked to do something specific that might create positive change while we were all together. In Power Shift parlance, we call that an action step, something that harnesses the collective power of the community. The USOW organizers opted, instead, to leave space for written personal commitments at the end of the program booklet, and asked that those be tweeted out in the following days. I suppose that is the politic approach, and if this becomes the first of an annual event (as was intimated by the President), there will be ample opportunities for it to evolve and capitalize on its audience. In the meantime, it was an excellent first step, and a very important opportunity to demonstrate that women’s empowerment is not some small fringe movement – it is main stream, it is everywhere, and we have the most powerful megaphone in the world shouting it out.
Cindy Drakeman is the founding CEO of DoubleXEconomy, a research and strategy consulting firm dedicated to advancing women’s economic empowerment. Cindy attended the Summit as one of the official guests of Goldman Sachs.