Millennial Women’s Business Conferences: Safe Space Or Pink Silo?
“Should I put my flower crown on now–or wait till after the branding panel?”
A young woman consults with a friend at Create & Cultivate, a one-day summit of female entrepreneurs taking place in a sprawling industrial compound in downtown Los Angeles. She’s one of approximately 1,000 attendees who lounge on pale pink fainting couches, sip kombucha mocktails, and pose in front of set-designed walls emblazoned with Instagram-ready slogans, including a glittering gold “Time’s Up!” At noon, they kick up their suede booties and dig into vegan lunch boxes, which, as it so happens, include a floral hair accessory.
“Wait, did you go to the salon here yet?” her friend interjects. “You can get a fishtail braid. That might be cuter.”
At Create & Cultivate, women in their 20s and 30s gather to network and learn businesses skills–and indulge in a little me-time. The event, which has cropped up in nearly a dozen cities from Atlanta to Seattle over the past few years, showcases celebrity speakers (Kim Kardashian West, Chrissy Teigen, Lauren Conrad) alongside CEOs and venture capitalists. At the L.A. gathering, held in February, attendees wander between finance panels, pitching tutorials, and podcasting seminars, then mosey over to a pop-up market with free styling and ear-piercing services.
And with tickets priced between $350 and $550, no corporate expense account is required.
Create & Cultivate founder Jaclyn Johnson refers to her sold-out conference as a “work party”–aimed at new generation of women who are redefining their careers as fun, personal, and to be approached on their own terms. (It’s also the title of Johnson’s new book.)
A scan of attendees reveals a high percentage of ombre highlights and designer leather moto jackets. These predominantly millennial women, much like their curated Instagram accounts, appear perfectly put together. And though they might seem like they’re here to socialize or go trick-or-treating for swag, they are also hustlers. Between events, they pitch each other their businesses: cosmetics lines, wellness blogs, consulting firms, and more. In lieu of business cards, they swap phones to follow one another on Instagram. In bathroom lines, they hug one another with promises to text the next day.
If all they wanted to do was party, one attendee tells me, they’d be in Tulum.
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.
“There really has been no space for this generation to [convene] in any kind of remotely professional setting in a way that’s geared to them,” says Amoruso. “Most conferences were largely corporate-feeling; they didn’t really bring into account the beauty and energy that a younger audience might be attracted to.”
After hitting New York and Los Angeles in 2017, the Girlboss Rally 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. Panels cover everything from establishing your brand identity to navigating venture funding. Amid the neon pink signs and chic potted plants, there’s even a dedicated studio for attendees to get professional LinkedIn headshots.
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, has its own annual festival. The two-day Re:Make conference emphasizes personal creativity, 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 eye-candy events 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. This includes Instagram influencers, fashion bloggers, and entertainers-turned-moguls. “I think a lot of younger millennials look at them and think, ‘I want to do that,’” says Johnson, who constructs her events to appeal to a multi-hyphenate generation.
These conferences are part of a wider trend of startups built on the idea of empowering young women in the workspace. They are targeting a lucrative sector: ambitious millennials who prioritize communal experiences, and are willing to pay for access like-minded individuals. Among them are the female-only coworking spaces of the Wing, the Bumble Bizz networking app (where women make the first move), and The Muse, a millennial-focused career-development platform.
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. A recent Bankrate survey found that 28% of millennials have a side hustle in addition to their main job.
They know that the era of lifetime employers is over, Lipman says, and “are planning things out very purposefully over a few-year block.” Create & Cultivate and its ilk are tapping into this entrepreneurial streak.
At Create & Cultivate, there are no PowerPoint presentations; instead, speakers such as Kardashian West share personal career journeys and engage in Q&A sessions. Attendees flock to “mentor power hours,” where business leaders and VCs provide one-on-one feedback to groups of 20 or less. Millennials, organizers have found, prefer intimate experiences with interactive dialogue over one-way communication.
Boston native Gianne Doherty, 35, founder, of The W.E.L.L. Summit., a series of gatherings for women in health and wellness, traveled to the L.A. Create & Cultivate precisely for this kind of connection. When she attended the Seattle edition back in 2017, she met with an investor during a mentor power hour. They still talk and meet for lunch a year later.
Kathryn Minshew, CEO and cofounder of The Muse, points to the adage, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” These events provide young women with the confidence to envision themselves as business leaders. “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,” she says.
A new report conducted by Harvard Business Review examined the Conference for Women, a one-day professional development event held in Boston for women of all ages that last drew 15,000 attendees. It found that attendees were twice as likely to receive a promotion and three times as likely to get a 10% or more pay increase in the year following the conference. But more importantly, the report showed that being connected to like-minded peers significantly impacted attendees’ confidence and work performance.
“Coming to an event like ours helps people find their voice and make them feel less alone,” explains Laurie Dalton White, founding director of Conferences for Women.
Despite constant digital interaction, says Johnson, female millennials can feel isolated in the workplace. There’s a desire to meet in real life–the same need that has fueled the Wing. “People want to get offline,” she says, “and they want to be in environment that is fun and exciting.”
At Create & Cultivate, fun comes in the form of beauty bars and selfie backdrops. 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.
“Today’s generation of women cares about business in the context of lifestyle as well,” says Brit + Co founder Brit Morin, referring to her lineup as edu-tainment. She sees millennials’ work lives and hobbies increasingly intersecting, with personal passions becoming synonymous with career ambitions. And this age group, not yet tethered by children and family life, generally has the time to nurture such activities.
Empowering Or Pandering?
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 less useful just because there’s a fitness class available. In fact, these kinds of lifestyle activities help attendees engage with one another onsite–and off.
And the more stylish the event is, the more its presence is amplified on social media. Melissa Matlins, VP of marketing for The Muse, doesn’t fault these conferences for playing to Instagram, especially when the messaging is around female empowerment and successful women. “If this gives that message more legs, God bless,” she says.
Networking happens everywhere today, from golf courses to Burning Man to Tough Mudder. Why shouldn’t young women create their own well-designed havens? “These targeted events are helping a generation of women and underrepresented groups find their voice and place in the world of work,” says Matlins. She credits such conferences with “pioneering new and more collaborative experiences” and ways to network.
Lipman concedes that the unabashedly girlie branding of these events can send a mixed message, but believes that women should be given the same liberties as men. “Nobody says that the guys at Google aren’t serious just because they play ping-pong and foosball,” she explains. “People should be allowed to be who they are and not have that impact how they are judged as professionals.”
But Lipman also acknowledges that for real workplace change, conferences should include men. Without them, she argues, you only target 50% of the population: “I’m a believer in coed because the world is coed.”
What’s more, with their relentless focus on lifestyle, these events risk alienating large swathes of women: Those whose tastes don’t skew toward fashion and beauty, and anyone over the age of, say, 40. These are women who could prove invaluable in terms of mentoring, guidance, and more importantly, networking–the very benefits these conferences are selling.
Morin sees it differently: “I think that it’s more impactful to go deep with a very specific niche audience–and for us, that’s millennial women–than to try to be all things to all people.”
Going niche certainly proves impactful in attracting sponsors who want to tap into a young, engaged community. Create & Cultivate, for example, boasts 241,000 Instagram followers and more than 12,000 tagged posts.
When Johnson launched her conference in 2012, only fashion and beauty brands expressed interest in sponsorship. Today, she counts Quickbook, WeWork, and a number of other tech and finance companies as partners, who are drawn to Create & Cultivate’s mix of career and lifestyle programming.
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 by design. “Women who are running real companies care about fashion, health and wellness, but also care about their 401(k) and what they’re investing in,” she stresses. “It can be pink, it can be fun, and it can still be serious.”