SPEAKERS, SEMINARS, AND SELFIES
Female-centric conferences are thriving, having figured out how to empower—and market to—young entrepreneurial women.
In the airy auditorium of a massive industrial space in downtown L.A., Kim Kardashian West lays out her approach to entrepreneurship to an audience of around 1,500 young women. Attendees, who moments earlier were knocking over chairs to get as close as possible to the stage and frantically posting on social media, are captivated. “I put in the work,” Kardashian West says. “There’s nothing that bothers me more than people that are lazy.” The crowd erupts into cheers. “She’s everything,” gushes an ombré-haired audience member. As Kardashian West waves farewell, confetti falls from the ceiling and audience members wave cocktails in the air excitedly. Some dance in the aisles. Welcome to Create & Cultivate, a one-day summit of female entrepreneurship that founder Jaclyn Johnson describes as a “work party.” The event, which has cropped
up in nearly a dozen cities, including Atlanta and Seattle, over the past few years, showcases celebrity speakers (Lauren Conrad, Chrissy Teigen) alongside CEOS and venture capitalists. It features mentoring sessions and pop-up markets with makeup bars and ear-piercing services. Networking events, fueled by kombucha, are held against Instagram-ready backdrops of living walls and glittery feminist quotations. And with tickets priced between $350 and $550, no corporate expense account is required.
Create & Cultivate, which also maintains an online career-advice platform, is one of several new conferences catering to the tastes, needs, and budgets of the career-minded millennial. Sophia Amoruso, whose e-commerce company, Nasty Gal, filed for bankruptcy in 2016 and was sold off last year, recently resurrected her brand of edgy feminine ambition with the launch of Girlboss, a media startup featuring the daylong Girlboss Rally. After hitting New York and Los Angeles in 2017, the event is returning to L.A. this spring with Goop’s Gwyneth Paltrow and Uber chief brand officer Bozoma Saint John as headliners and some 700 attendees paying between $325 and $700 per ticket. Brit + Co, a six-year-old lifestyle media company that reaches an estimated 175 million women each month through its website and social media handles, holds an annual Re:make festival that emphasizes personal creativity. The two-day event showcases dozens of speakers across nontraditional business categories and offers workshops that include jewelry crafting and flower-crown making. The brand also hosted the five-day #Creategood festival in New York last fall with handbag designer Rebecca Minkoff and ballerina Misty Copeland as panelists. (Tickets for big-name talks went for $20.) More than 10,000 people showed up.
Offering an alternative to the traditionally male speakers and whiskey-fueled after hours of their corporate predecessors, these conferences place equal emphasis on entrepreneurship, personal branding, and unabashedly girlie networking activities. Speakers often embody a new kind of business leader: one who built a career around her social media persona, passion project, or side hustle. At Create & Cultivate, attendees move between business roundtables, pitching tutorials, and podcasting seminars that emphasize audience building. The Girlboss Rallies feature talks from entrepreneurs like blogger and Man Repeller founder Leandra Medine on establishing your brand identity and navigating venture funding. The New York rally had hair touch-ups for professional Linkedin headshots; L.A.’S will include a Nike-sponsored boxing class. The Brit + Co event in New York last November featured a temporary-tattoo parlor and confectionery-filled “selfie zones,” and attendees played skee ball in a pink arcade and knitted pom-pom earrings—a novel way to meet and mingle.
These eye-candy events are part of a wider trend of startups built on the idea of empowering young women in the work space and tapping into their entrepreneurial streak. Among them are the female-only coworking spaces of the Wing, the Bumble Bizz networking a pp( where women make the first move ), and the Muse, a millennial focused career-development platform .“There’ s something very powerful about being surrounded, virtually or in person, by others who share your ethos and who may be striving toward some of the same goals as you are,” says Kathryn Minshew, cofounder and CEO of the Muse.
Women in their twenties and thirties have come to prioritize self-reliance, says Joanne Lipman, author of the new book That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together. They came of age during the recession and grew up in a world where the gig economy is ascendant. They know that the era of lifetime employers is over, Lipman says, and “are planning things out very purposefully over a few-year block.”
But boxing classes and jewelry making—not to mention cheeky neon signs and bubblegum-colored furniture—may not be every woman’s idea of female empowerment or pathway to entrepreneurship. And some critics argue that the tongue-in-cheek terms and hashtags these conferences traffic in (girlboss, fempreneur, business babe) are infantilizing and distract people from the larger, more structural problems facing women in the workplace.
Organizers say the programming isn’t any less useful because there’s matcha tea and a makeup bar on-site. Networking happens everywhere today, from golf courses to Burning Man to Tough Mudder. Why shouldn’t young women create their own havens? “These targeted events are helping a generation of women and underrepresented groups find their voice and place in the world of work,” says Melissa Matlins, VP of marketing at the Muse. She credits such conferences with “pioneering new and more collaborative experiences” and ways to network.
And if they pop on social media—and draw in sponsors—all the better for the organizers. When Johnson launched her event in 2012, her only sponsors were fashion and beauty companies. Today, Create & Cultivate counts Quickbooks, Wework, and Microsoft as partners. Last fall, Microsoft hosted an edition of Create & Cultivate at its Seattle campus. Amanda Duncan, senior communications manager at the technology giant, says she was impressed by how the audience transferred its enthusiasm for the conference into social media: “Every moment is one that can be shared in person and then also online.”
For Johnson, melding education with Instagrammable moments is the goal: “It can be pink, it can be fun, and it can still be serious.”
BOXING CLASSES AND JEWELRY MAKING— NOT TO MENTION CHEEKY NEON SIGNS AND BUBBLEGUM-COLORED FURNITURE—MAY NOT BE EVERY WOMAN’S IDEA OF FEMALE EMPOWERMENT.