What It’s Like To Network At 30,000 Feet

Photo: Courtesy Hearst.
Have you ever been to a networking conference? My job has landed me at several, and they've all had a similar set of bland characteristics: a large room in a hotel or convention center, uncomfortable chairs, stick-on name tags, and some sort of post-talk happy hour in a hotel bar. Conversations feel forced and awkward, while presenters echo buzzwords and ideas about female empowerment that are stale and ineffective. It can be taxing. So when my editor asked me to cover Marie Claire's Power Trip, an inaugural 36-hour event that claimed to "take networking to new heights," I was skeptical about just how "new" those heights could be. While the opportunity to take a chartered flight to San Francisco with 100 of the most impressive women on the East Coast was certainly novel, I had my doubts that it would amount to much beyond being a gimmick. However, I was pleasantly surprised that the whirlwind networking adventure was relaxed, fun, and, ultimately, effective at establishing new connections — even for someone like me who is not (yet) a powerful woman.
The trip kicked off at 8 a.m. at New York's JFK airport, where some 100 women met to fly to San Francisco to meet another 100 female power players for a series of panels, meals, and, above all, networking. The esteemed attendees included Katie Dowd, the digital director at Hillary for America, Katia Beauchamp, the cofounder and CEO at Birchbox, Lindsay Shookus, a producer for SNL, and many more. Among all the women in the terminal preparing to board the plane, I was probably the least important person. I haven't founded a company, won an award outside of a school setting, or been referred to as an influencer. More proof that I was a fish out of water: the start of the trip was only my fourth week as Refinery29's associate tech editor, and our company's chief operating officer, Amy Emmerich (my boss' boss' boss' boss), was among the esteemed on-board attendees. Although I knew that some women would talk to me in my capacity as a reporter covering the trip, I wasn't sure any of them would want to network with me after finding out my credentials. But there was no reason to worry. Throughout the entire trip, I wasn't treated as someone who was less accomplished or even as just a reporter — I was treated as someone whose thoughts and ideas were just as valid as the CEO sitting one row over. The atmosphere upon boarding the plane was expectedly buzzy, yet what was less expected was that this level of excitement would keep up for the entire six-and-a-half hour-long flight. "On a plane, we have such a captive audience," said Anne Fulenwider, Marie Claire's editor-in-chief. "We thought, what can we do if we get all these women in the air? I thought I knew exactly what would happen: When the captain of the all-female crew announced that we could take out our devices, everyone would log on to check and reply to emails, plug in their headphones to focus on writing memos, and stay attached to the plane's Wi-Fi for most of the trip. These are very busy women, after all. Instead, the majority of attendees from all industries imaginable — tech, fashion, politics — remained standing in the aisles, chatting about everything from their latest business ventures to adventures and misadventures with their kids back home (there was also a pumping station on board to accommodate new moms). Despite my tendency to fall asleep the second a plane leaves the ground, I was too excited by all the momentum to do so. Pre-scheduled interviews aside, I wanted a chance to have an uninterrupted moment to chat with Michelle Chila, senior vice president of marketing and PR at Tacori, and Carbon38 president Caroline Gogolak. "We tried really hard to cross-pollinate from tech, entertainment, fashion, business...women who have disrupted industries or created industries where there weren't any," Fulenwider said. The energy level on the plane remained so high that it was hard to hear loudspeaker announcements and even harder to get everyone to take their seats as we began our descent into San Francisco.
Surprisingly, the parts of the trip that ended up feeling forced were the planned activities, including some of the panel discussions that took place in San Francisco. Although the panels did feature some powerful (and very tweetable) lines from luminaries like Gwyneth Paltrow, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Tyra Banks, it was ultimately the plane rides to and from San Francisco that seemed the most effective and representative of what the future of networking looks like. Lesson learned: When you bring 200 of the most successful women in the country together they don't need conversation starters. They are the conversation starters.
"What I love about the plane is that we're together for hours, which fosters a more casual opportunity to have a conversation," said Emilie Rubinfeld, chief marketing officer at Carolina Herrera. "We can't go anywhere and we have limited access to the outside world. What's special about this is that lost notion of focus. On the plane, we have undistracted quality time. No one is sleeping, no one is watching a movie [or on their phones]. We're all having conversations. That would never happen in a ballroom at a lunch or in a restaurant." This undistracted time also allowed the women to have boundary-pushing conversations about the struggles to balance work and life — topics that might not come up in a more typical networking setting. "There are a lot of women [here] who have put other aspects of their lives on hold for their careers," said Jill Furman, a producer for Broadway's award-winning Hamilton and the president of Jill Furman Productions. "I talked to two women about freezing eggs because I'm a single mother. I don't really talk about egg freezing that often, especially not in a professional setting. I found that kind of openness refreshing. I was among like-minded people."
By the time we had finally landed back in New York, travel fatigue was already setting in, but this didn't prevent new friends from making follow-up plans at baggage claim. As for me, I left feeling grateful for having had an opportunity to connect with women I admire both personally and professionally, and more determined than when I set foot on board. But I also think there's something to be gained from being the youngest, least powerful woman on a plane full of bosses. I got one of those rare insider's look at how these badass women really work. Maybe Power Trip's organizers will consider including a few more of us on their next high-flying networking adventure, because young women who haven't yet achieved influencer status could certainly gain a lot from the experience. I know I did.

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series