What It's Like Being A Black Woman On A 36-Hour Power Networking Trip

Photo: Courtesy of Kathryn Wirsing.
For the second year, Marie Claire successfully achieved a feat that sounds impossible: Bringing together 200 powerful women, half from the East Coast, half from the West Coast, for a whirlwind 36-hour trip to San Francisco that included six inspirational panels, three jaw-dropping surprise events, and a ton of swag.
If a couple hundred women flying coast to coast in a day-and-a-half while wearing name tags sounds like networking on steroids, it was. There was no shortage of Instagrammable, go-get-'em messaging from names like Uber Chief Brand Officer Bozoma Saint John, 23andMe founder Anne Wojcicki, and celebrities Taraji P. Henson, Mila Kunis, and Priyanka Chopra. (My favorite quote was Henson saying, "Whenever I get told no, it's okay, because I know a yes is coming.")
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The itinerary for the trip was amazing, but I immediately felt intimidated. First, because I was one of only three fly-on-the-wall journalists covering the event, which meant I was by far one of the least important people there, as the attendee list included women at the top of companies like Sephora, Airbnb, FitBit, Gucci, Mattel, Williams-Sonoma, Intel, and JetBlue, just to name a few. Casual. But I also felt out of place as both a Black and Latina woman.
Of course, there's a nervousness that comes with any kind of networking event when you don't know anyone. But for me, as an "other" in a sea full of perfectly tailored and coiffed women, that nervousness doubles in the form of a huge knot in the pit of my stomach. In addition to feeling like I didn't have much in common with these wildly successful women, I also had to get over my insecurities about looking different.
I've attended dozens of journalism conferences and networking events over the years, so I'm no stranger to that anxiety. Even when everyone around me is perfectly nice and welcoming, there's an internal dialogue that happens. "Are they staring at me? What can we talk about? How crazy does my hair look? Why can I never look that effortless?"
I had to give Marie Claire, props, though, for doing a great job at making this event feel a lot more diverse than many others I've attended, where I've frequently been the only brown person in the room. Still, only 20 or so of 200 of the attendees were women of color, and it was glaringly evident from this gathering that we're still by far in the minority in the business world — even compared to our white female peers.
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To overcome my anxiety, I turned to the most natural and obvious icebreaker that we all had in common: the trip itself. After a panel where we’d all sipped bourbon with Mila Kunis, I found that simply turning to the woman next to me to comment on the absurd — but ingenious — idea to pack all of this into less than two days was an easy conversation starter. That small talk skill helped me meet everyone from an accessories designer to the founder of the mental health app Talkspace. Color aside, there were a lot of connections happening between all 200 women, and as these kinds of things go, the most meaningful chats were happening off-site — like, say, on one of the female-only, cross-country Jet Blue flights, or during a dinner on the field of AT&T Park (home to the San Francisco Giants). That off-the-clock bonding dynamic was on purpose, Marie Claire editor-in-chief Anne Fulenwider told me.
"I've always believed that the best conversations between powerful women happen outside of work environments — that's why we kept each panel short and packed in a ton of social time," she said. "As fun as it is being at the top of your industry as a woman, it can be isolating, especially because the few other women at that level in your industry are also often your competition. So we wanted to bring together all types of women at the top of different industries, yes, so they can learn, but also so they can relax with their peers in a way that they might not get to do often."
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For the Black women in attendance, this proved to be especially true. It's a rare occasion — if ever — that we get to kick back and relax with other Black women at our respective levels. But during cocktail hour on the first day of the Power Trip, I found myself with a Black girl crew that included Brittany Packnett, VP of National Community Alliances; Jean Brownhill, CEO of Sweeten; Miko Branch, CEO of Miss Jessie's, and Dee Poku, a former Hollywood film producer and founder of the WIE Network.
"I don't often see many women of color in these settings, so when I do see some, it's like a relief, because you know you'll have so many shared experiences and that they'll get it," Poku told me. "We usually all gravitate toward one another immediately. I think I met most of the women of color on this trip within the first couple of hours!"
It was, indeed, like we'd been automatically drawn to one another. That in itself became a conversation about power, because there we were at a women's-only networking event, but even when we were focused on our woman-ness, we had no choice but to focus on our Black woman-ness, too. This group-within-a-group had lengthy conversations about everything from hair products (obviously) to the joys of hiring other Black women, because that's the only way we end up in positions of power — by looking out for our own. We also touched on the fact that, as minorities, we find conversations about salary negotiating even harder than they might be for white women, because we already have to work twice as hard to get to where we want to be.
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Those were all sentiments that Henson is also familiar with. During her panel about making your way to the top, she touched on her experience as a woman of color in Hollywood.
"Once I realized it would be harder for me, I just decided to do the work — I decided not to complain about how hard it is," she said. "I know it. I'm a woman of color, and I'm in Hollywood...I said, okay, well what can I do to change this? How can I change the narrative? I may not be able to change the world in one night, but at least the little steps I'm making will make it easier for all the young women of color coming up behind me. So I fight for my pay. Once upon a time they didn't pay me...now? You gotta pay me!"
Later, I sat next to Sarah Kunst, CEO of the sports lifestyle website ProDay, on a bus ride to the Museum of Ice Cream (where everyone was way too exhausted and high on sugar to do anything but laugh uncontrollably and take Boomerangs). We talked for 20 minutes about how cool it is that a lot of buzzy companies are finally recognizing the magic that is Black women. But more importantly, about how we hope that's not just a trend or phrase for these outlets, but a moment that lasts forever. It was a short conversation, but it stuck with me so much so that I've made it a personal goal of mine now that I'm back at my own job. Aha, Marie Claire. I see what you guys mean about those off-site conversations being even more impactful, especially when you're in the minority.
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On the flight back to New York, when I imagined that everyone would be so exhausted they'd pass out sleeping, I was wrong. These power women were still at it, and I overheard a Black app founder and an Asian-American executive chatting about similar networking events they'd attended before, except those panels mostly featured white men.
"You always hear these white men giving career advice that's like, 'Hey, you don't need a degree! Times are changing!'" said the Black woman. The second woman agreed. "Maybe that applies to them, but there's no way in hell a Black or Asian woman could make it to the top of a company without a college degree!" The pair then went on to discuss the white, male Silicon valley uniform of a hoodie and jeans, an outfit that most women could never get away with if they want to be taken seriously.
But perhaps the best part of the whole trip was the major power moves happening on that plane, between women of all colors. With pens and paper in hand, a group of women of various backgrounds started jotting down ideas for collaborating on a project to benefit victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. One Black business owner asked a white Dell exec about having their technology at one of her company's upcoming events. More than a few times, I heard someone say "E-mail me, and I'll have my assistant connect you two!" and even just little ol' me, the Black and Puerto Rican, fly-on-the-wall reporter, walked away with dozens of contacts for future story ideas before I'd even landed back in New York — and a few of them even looked like me.
Double standards, sexual harassment, being a Black woman in the workplace — these are the kinds of topics most working women only feel comfortable talking about when they're amongst kindred souls. And even just as a writer, I was able to overcome my outsider's nervousness enough to allow myself to feel empowered, leaving that event with the urge to share many of those motivating conversations with my girlfriends and coworkers. I was even inspired to think Hey, maybe it isn't so crazy that I, a young, brown woman, could have a company of my own one day!
So here's hoping the world creates more safe spaces like the Power Trip for women, so that we can, in fact, fully own our power — and that perhaps, sooner rather than later, an event bringing together women at the top of their fields will look more diverse. One can only hope. Until then, Marie Claire, I'll see you next year, at 30,000 feet.
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