On Wednesday, November 2, over 2,000 Central Texas women met at the Austin Convention Center for the Austin Women’s Conference & Show, an event designed to inspire and empower women in both their personal and professional lives. The event featured keynote speakers, workshops, local musicians and a variety of booths selling products and giving away coupons and, often, chocolate (how did they know?!).
In the opening grand session, Dr. Christiane Northrup, a women’s health and wellness authority, spoke about changing the way we think about women’s health. Our organs are not little ticking time bombs waiting for the moment to fail or become diseased, she said. Instead of thinking of October as Breast Cancer Awareness month, she recommended thinking of it as Breast Health Awareness Month. Great revision.
For the first workshop session, I chose “It’s Never Too Late (or Too Early) to Make a Change.” In this workshop, Lynn Reardon spoke of leaving her job as an accountant on Wall Street in her early 40s and following her love of horses to Austin, where she now owns a nonprofit racehorse placement agency. Christine Hassler, a life coach, spoke of the difficult decision to leave a job as a Hollywood agent—one of those perfect-on-the-outside lives—and discovering who she really was, rather than relying on the hypothetical “when X happens, I’ll be happy.”
Reardon’s choice really resonated with me, in particular something she said in the Q&A. She talked about the importance of surrounding yourself with people for whom your dream is normal—for her, the recent college grads who were her coworkers and even supervisors when she was first starting out as a camp counselor in her new field. I loved this piece of advice. A couple of years ago, I uprooted myself from Austin and went to Australia on a year-long working holiday with the crazy (but persistent) idea that despite never having been a tour guide and having only basic scuba and snorkeling experience, I wanted to work on a whale shark tour boat. And I did. It was amazing to me how to all my coworkers, and to everyone in town, in fact, our job was so normal—“Oh, you swim with the whale sharks too?” So I loved what Reardon said about how working with those camp counselors helped her see just how realistic her “crazy dream” really was.
In the next session, I heard Jan Goss and Miranda Darr speak about “Protocol Power—Professional Polish Pays.” Goss dished out professional-grade “everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten”-style advice about the importance of being nice to others and remembering that we’re all equally valuable. Darr talked about dressing like a professional. They showed a photo of three people in dark business suits at the end of a long conference table and asked, “Would you do business with these people? I would.” My strong, visceral reaction was “No way! They look so boring!” Maybe it’s a generational thing.
At lunch, Kim Iversen of “Your Time With Kim” talked about carving out a path as a female radio host in a male-dominated field (only nine percent of radio hosts are female, she said). I’ve heard her radio show before (and Kim, if you’re reading this, YES, Kim Kardashian should DEFINITELY give back all her wedding gifts! How is this even up for debate?!), but I’d never heard her story, which turned out to be similar to Hassler’s—and to many others’ at the conference. She was in television, she seemed to have to it all, but something was missing—so she went into radio and eventually wound up with her own nationally syndicated show. It was inspiring to hear the amazing odds so many of the women had overcome to follow their passions, create their own businesses and shape their own lives.
Then Carson Kressley of Carson-nation, How to Look Good Naked and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy gave the attendees some style tips. He suggested owning a few classics and accenting with trend pieces rather than going Forever 21 all the way, reminding the audience that “leggings aren’t pants” (good call, Carson). He also answered audience questions, including, “Can tall women wear heels?” (yes), “Can you show us your moves like Jagger?” (yes), “Can I wear white shoes after Labor Day?” (no), and “What do you think about hose?” (It’s the world’s oldest profession).
For the last workshop, I went to “Smart Girls, Funny Choices, Great Life,” with Meredith Walker. Walker, along with Amy Poehler and Amy Miles, created Smart Girls at the Party, a web TV show featuring preteen and teenage girls “who are changing the world by being themselves,” according to Walker’s bio in the conference program. Walker talked about the importance of listening to teen girls and encouraging them—and ourselves—to play.
Overall, it was an interesting day and left me feeling inspired to disregard what’s “realistic” in working toward my goals. Others seem to have been even more inspired. Kate Short, 30, a personal health coach for active women, said, “What a tangible energy to walk into a huge conference room, bursting with enthusiastic women who were warm and genuinely eager to talk, network and share. I left overflowing with the fullness of so many new connections with these amazing Austin women and knowing that this one day will bring countless opportunities in the months and year to come.”
And Renée Peterson Trudeau, who did the closing keynote speech, said on the Facebook group for her Live Inside Out initiative that one woman told her, “‘I realize I've been so focused on being kind to others, I completely forgot to be kind to myself.’ Gathering with 2,000 women who were waking up to their truth was quite powerful.”
I left, however, feeling like something wasn’t quite sitting well with me. Part of it was the “self-improvement starts on the inside” message paired with multiple booths promoting liposuction, Botox and varicose vein treatments. But it was also the discomfort of combining the personal and professional. In an era where colleagues are able to see more of my snarky Facebook comments than I would prefer, do we really need a conference to encourage the collision of our personal and professional lives any more than they already collide?
For instance, one of the booths sold bras and offered free bra fittings, citing the oft-touted statistic that 85 percent of women are wearing the wrong size. Do I really want to be trying on bras one moment, and then turning around and handing out my business card? I mean, don’t get me wrong—they fit great. But this is a clash of personal and professional that I wasn’t quite ready for.