“We’re so used to creating value for other people. It’s so nice to finally be creating value for yourself.” Randi Zuckerberg was onstage in New York City today, wearing a black T-shirt with the word “Facebook” spelled out in rhinestones. Or maybe real diamonds: It was, after all, the day of Facebook’s long-awaited IPO, in which the stock options her brother had convinced her years ago to take instead of a higher salary might just make her a billionaire.
But Zuckerberg wasn’t talking about the IPO; she was in a midtown Sheraton Hotel conference room talking about her “Plan B” — her post-Facebook entrepreneurial career as the head of R to Z Media — as part of a panel at the National Association of Professional Women Networking Conference. As the whole business world breathlessly watched Facebook’s initial trading, a calm Zuckerberg beamed and nodded along as moderator Star Jones said that her own Plan B had been inspired by Waiting to Exhale and how one of her co-panelists, a “mom-trepreneur” who makes homemade baby food, talked about the anxieties that drove her business career. “Is it okay to feed my baby pumpkin out of a can?”
If Zuckerberg was secretly thinking about precisely how rich she’d become since she’d walked onstage, she didn’t show it. Or maybe she hinted at it: “This is my year of no!” she said, in response to a question from Jones about how one goes about telling friends she’s become too busy and important to hang out.
Women-specific networking conferences are on the rise: Just about every group, from media to law to the tea party, hosts some version. This particular conference, a large-tent, cross-industry annual event that’s free to the 400,000-some members of the NAPW, doubled in size since last year. This probably had something to do with Jones and the sizzle-y lineup she’d assembled: The crisis-management guru upon whom Kerry Washington’s character on Scandal is based, Christine Hefner (daughter of Hugh and former head of Playboy), and fast-rising Long Island D.A. Kathleen Rice. Plus keynote speaker Sara Blakely, of Spanx fame, who recently became the youngest self-made female billionaire (unless, of course, Zuckerberg supplanted her record mid-conference).
They were there, per Jones, to “learn, grow, and connect.” And for the pink gift bags, which included pink lipstick wrapped inside a black lacy pouch reminiscent of negligee, Spanx trouser socks (serious career-gal shapewear), and assorted gift certificates. “If we get nothing else out of this conference … ” said the twentysomething woman behind me upon discovering a card worth $50 at Spanx.
Divorcing friends, negotiation tactics, whether it’s okay to cry in the office, how to use tears as a power move, “optimizing ancillary opportunities,” the gender wage gap, how we will all probably die (heart disease, No. 1 killer of ladies!), and what to wear to work were but a few of the topics discussed against the pink backdrop of a stage that looked an awful lot like the set of The View and after the intro music — the Christina Aguilera version of Lady Marmalon and Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” — had played. Attendees couldn’t quite agree on what the dress code was at the conference (I spotted one woman in a one-shouldered gauzy, bedazzled cocktail dress, alongside a friend in a suit), but there were plenty of lines onstage that they all found mutually inspiring. “There is a difference between failing and being a failure,” wisdom from Saks Fifth Avenue’s CMO Denise Incandela, got perhaps the biggest applause of the morning, rivaled only by the knowing laughter when Jones, explaining the differences between true friends and mere associates, asked one panelist if her business-partner husband was “in [her] intimate circle.”
The girlie-girl branding came alongside a healthy dose of more serious-minded, practical advice; as Hefner noted during her panel, that couldn’t have happened in the seventies, in the era of high-neck blouses and women in ties. Viewed one way, it’s an odd thing that these gender-specific conferences, in which a talk-show-host-cum-celebrity calls the audience “sisters” and requests that high-level executives detail times when they have broken out weeping at work, have proliferated in an era when it’s not an alien experience for a woman to be a “professional,” when women make up more than half of the overall workforce, and where plenty of free advice for how to make it in business, whether woman-specific or more general, is available with just a few clicks of the mouse, rather than an expensive flight to an expensive city.
Presumably a small-business-owning nurse from New Jersey wanting a leg up in her career might want to focus her networking within her own industry, rather than chatting with some woman from Virginia with a local marketing firm who happens to be seated next to her for the free peppercorn chicken and cheesecake. Of course, it’s also an era in which women still don’t occupy a proportionate number of executive offices, and so there are plenty of clear and earnest feminist reasons why such conferences — which perhaps function more as inspirational, aspirational sessions than as true networking opportunities, though that label wouldn’t be quite as appealing — exist. But mostly, they seem to just be fun for the women involved to attend, to get away from their normal work life and still nominally call it work. Which, really, is what everyone goes to conferences for; maybe the proliferation of lady conferences isn’t so gender-specific after all.