As a general rule I don’t usually attend conferences, but the speaker lineup for the 2014 Women: Inspiration & Enterprise (WIE) Symposium convinced me to make an exception. Among the scheduled panelists: Zosia Mamet, Cosmopolitan web editor Amy Odell, Goldieblox founder Debra Sterling, and Change the Ratio co-founder Rachel Sklar.
I expected an estrogen fest, and I got one. In the best possible way.
Dozens of women of all ages huddled into the spacious, well-lit Dolce Vita showroom (the company was an event sponsor) at the Puck Building in downtown Manhattan for the occasion. Attendees seemed eager to network and to pound free coffee, but mostly to absorb whatever wisdom speakers could offer on topics as varied as social innovation, the future of media, body confidence, entrepreneurship, neurochemistry, and fundraising. Below are 9 empowering takeaways from the daylong affair.
1. There’s value in sharing your darkest experiences.
In disclosing her lifelong struggle with an eating disorder in Glamour magazine, Zosia Mamet’s goal was not to scapegoat the media for her body image issues, or to advance her career through scandal. Mamet wanted to encourage women to discuss their demons rather than bury them. This is something I’ve long believed in, so it was reassuring to hear the sentiment seconded. In a culture that practically demands cultivating a phony-happy social media presence, sharing the dark stuff is arguably now more important than ever.
2. Real bodies can make a real difference.
Dove’s impactful “real beauty” campaign launched a decade ago, when a savvy marketing executive decided to do something about a disturbing statistic: Only 2 percent of women surveyed by the company described themselves as beautiful. According to a Dove spokesperson at WIE, the number of women who feel responsible for defining beauty for themselves has jumped from 23 percent to 62 percent in the last decade. Of course there’s still a body confidence problem among women, but the reported leap in progress is worthy of note, and it doesn’t seem like a stretch to credit Dove, and Lena Dunham.
3. How you talk about yourself affects young girls.
When we discuss the challenge of instilling confidence in young women, the dialogue often surrounds how we speak to girls about their bodies. For instance, it’s obviously unwise to tell an 8-year-old she’s fat. But it’s equally important for grown women not to deride their own figures. When we harp on about our physical shortcomings—especially around our children, who most likely resemble us—we’re effectively planting the seeds of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).
4. It’s okay not to know what your passion is.
After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in Engineering, Goldieblox’s Debbie Sterling was advised by countless people to follow her passion. What if you don’t know what your passion is, she wondered internally. Several years later, frustrated by a sense of complacency, Debbie organized her first “idea brunch,” a sort of casual, collective brainstorming session for her girlfriends, which soon became a regular tradition. At one of these gatherings, a fellow engineer proposed that the dearth of building toys for girls might account for the lack of women in their field. In that moment, Sterling’s passion for disrupting the “pink aisle” phenomenon was born. Today, her unconventional toy company is a major industry player.
5. With the help of a hair elastic, you can retrain your brain to think positively.
When you think terrible things about yourself, that energy trickles outward, contaminating the world around you. But according to best-selling author and “spirit junkie” Gabby Bernstein, we can rewire our neural pathways. Bernstein recommends wearing a hair elastic around your wrist and snapping it, hard, whenever you catch yourself entertaining a disparaging thought. “There’s something to be said about feeling the feeling for 90 seconds or so,” says Bernstein. Then, make a conscious effort to reshape your attitude. Eventually (in about 30 to 40 days), Bernstein claims we can retrain our brains to ditch the negativity.
6. Fear means “f everything and run.”
Who doesn’t love an acronym? When you think of fear as “f everything and run,” it seems totally unappealing. The main point here is beautifully simple: don’t f everything and run.
7. Ask yourself: WWASWGD (what would a straight white guy do?)
Instead of second-guessing yourself before diving into something (e.g. launching a business, approaching your boss for a promotion, or raising funds from venture capitalists), entrepreneur Cindy Gallop encourages women to stop and ask: WWASWGD? Essentially, Gallop wants women to remember that they’re no less qualified than their macho male counterparts in any endeavor.
8. Everything is boring, until you make it interesting.
These are the words of Amy Odell, the editor responsible for doubling Cosmopolitan’s online traffic in the course of the last year or so. Odell’s point is that it’s always possible to create content that’s funny, conversational, and shareable. She expects talented writers to be able to craft something uniquely engaging out of even the dullest subject matter. But the lesson applies to other fields, too. Everyone should aim to be “a unicorn,” Odell urges, meaning nothing less than exceptional at whatever you do.
9. Great clothing doesn’t preclude great achievement.
One of my favorite takeaways actually came from my audience neighbor, who leaned in at one point to whisper, “If this day has taught me one thing, it’s that I have to go shopping.” In the midst of impassioned chatter about how we need to emphasize female appearance less, the comment was wonderfully ironic. But I also understood why she said it: Everyone, in the crowd and on stage, seemed impossibly fashionable on top of being highly motivated and/or accomplished. Maybe we can’t have it all, but we can definitely have professional prowess, plus a badass wardrobe.