I attended the Watermark Conference for Women, Silicon Valley on Friday. It was sold out. The San Jose Convention Center celebrated over 6,500 women and their male allies.  

This was a particularly interesting year with keynote speakers that included Jodi Kantor, New York Times Investigative Journalist who broke the Harvey Weinstein story, Amal Clooney, Human Rights Attorney and Reese Witherspoon, Actress, Producer and Activist.  

Even though I have attended the conference in the past and had a good understanding of the format and topics, I listened more intently and observed the other attendees more closely. Each person at the conference was on their own journey. Some new to the world of work, others seeking opportunities and development. Many creating new connections. But what struck me most was seeing, first-hand, the impact that a small number of people can make to create a movement in a very short period of time. I was inspired by the ambition and hard work of so many women who created their own destinies. I saw what real courage looks like by not giving into power. I watched women being the best version of themselves by living their passion and had the pleasure of seeing how diversity drives innovation in real terms. Here’s a bit more on my favorite takeaways from the conference.

#1 – Create a Movement

Lunch keynote speaker, Reese Witherspoon talked about “creating a movement”. This was in reference to the Time’s Up campaign which established a legal defense fund for victims of sexual harassment. This has been a year of women and men organizing and uniting in their shared experiences without apology. In a very short period of time, people got organized, mobilized and established new paths forward to change policies, laws, and public opinion of ” what is acceptable behavior in all sectors of the workforce.” That being said, the Women’s Movement has been underway since 1848; in 1920 we got the right to vote. But the Women’s Liberation Movement had its biggest impact in the 1960s and ’70s, helping to shape legislation like the Civil Rights Act and Affirmative Action. The 2010 Census told us that more women than men in the workforce hold a college degree. However, women still earn roughly 80% of what men earn collectively but movements for pay parity are starting to close the wage gap. While all of this is not new, reflecting on the tenacity, brave actions and historical fight of so many gave me a great sense of gratitude for all those who have gone before me, my own responsibility, and those who will go after me.  

#2 – Sometimes you just have to put it out there

Jodi Kantor, award-winning New York Times investigative reporter and author spoke eloquently about her work in breaking the Harvey Weinstein story. As the story started to evolve she found herself being threatened by some of the most powerful people in media. While she had a parade of women willing to come forward and share their stories, some openly and others anonymously, she had to ask herself, would this story go anywhere? Would people care about this issue, after all there had been other stories written about sexual harassment for years? Once she put it out there, there was no going back. Was she prepared for that? She followed her conviction for finding and reporting the truth. In doing so, she affirmed that the discipline, craft and ethics of journalism can truly spark social change. I found her courage and selflessness inspiring and will hold it for those days when I don’t feel brave enough.  

#3 – Male Allies

 ” I feel very fortunate for the male allies I have had in my professional career and personal life.” I was especially pleased to see an increase in the number of men at the conference this year and had the privilege of connecting with some of my former colleagues who I not only consider to be my friends but champions of diversity. I started thinking about the men who have been coaches, mentors and supporters of my career and feel very grateful to them. They took the time to teach, encourage and share the spotlight. All traits of inclusive leadership. These are the leaders who cut off those who routinely dominated meetings so all can be heard and showed empathy for everyone in the room. These are the husbands, partners, brothers and sons who advocate for fairness and provide encouragement. We need men and women in our lives to help us achieve our goals and encouraging men who are allies only accelerates everyone’s success.

#4 – Don’t apologize for being ambitious

Ambition is one of those traits that can sometimes take on a negative connotation, especially for women. It’s not to say that everyone is on the same path or has the same interests but you should never apologize because you want to advance your career. Never say sorry to anyone who belittles your dream of advancement. “You don’t need to apologize because someone disagrees with your personal vision or ambition.”

We all should be able to dream of a life beyond what has been given but recognize it is entirely up to you to fulfill that aspiration.  Amal Clooney spoke about hard work. Endless amounts of reading required to become a lawyer. To achieve your ambition, you must have the determination and the willingness to work hard. But hard work is never enough, you must be willing to ask for what you want and stand on the conviction that you deserve to attain your goals.

#5 – How Creativity Bias Impacts Innovation

I found Jennifer Mueller, Ph.D., session on creativity fascinating. She wrote a paper that went viral, The Bias of Creativity: Why People Desire but Reject Creative Ideas.  

In Jennifer’s own words she described how her “early attempts at trying to trap the bias against creativity in the wild failed miserably – people uniformly said they loved creativity. For this reason, I thought, like most people did, that the bias against creativity must not exist, and instead, people who had their ideas rejected were just expressing sour grapes. One day, while attending a research seminar on racial bias, I had an insight. What if, just as people can have a positive authentic regard for a given social group, but also hold implicit and unacknowledged negative feelings towards this same group, people could have an outward authentic love for creativity but hide their hate towards it.” It’s an interesting paradox for sure. The discussion made me question how we recognize creative ideas, creative leaders and we structure organizations for innovation.

If you were to ask ten other people who attended the conference for their takeaways you would most likely get another list of enriching and inspiring experiences. I am grateful to Medallia for giving 46 women in the organization the opportunity to connect, learn and become the best versions of themselves.