I am not a creative. I possess creativity. I have creative thoughts. Sometimes I paint. But am I “a creative?” No, sir. Quite the opposite: I am a project manager at a digital agency, but I work for a man who supports the growth of women in technology. He was the first person I knew that read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. He was the first (and only) man I've known that then sat and asked me about it. He's evolved and he's supportive.
When he presented me with the prospect of attending the 3% Conference in October, I quickly agreed. A female-focused advertising conference in San Francisco? You bet. At the company's expense? Even better.
As I read more about the conference, my interest was piqued. It's focus is creative directors in advertising, and I'm neither a creative nor a director. But I do work in advertising and I am a woman, and I know what it’s like to be the only woman in a room full of men so that counts… I'm in!
Excitement turns to nerves as the conference creeps closer. I've been to conferences before, but as a vendor, where my job was to sell. I had a perfect elevator pitch and was fearless when it came to approaching my audience.. But this was different: I was attending a conference not technically geared towards me... alone. Plus, the 3% Conference focuses on creative directors in advertising, and I'm neither a creative nor a director.
Filled with punctual exuberance, I arrive at the conference. But exuberance turns to sweaty palms as I round the corner: hundreds of my peers, all clearly involved in conversations. My middle school fears return: does everyone know everyone already? They’re grouped up as if they've known each other for years! My inner critic finds a megaphone to amplify her opinions: "I bet when they find out you're a project manager, they'll roll their eyes.
So I do what any introvert would do in that situation. I grab a quick cup of coffee and a danish and find a seat inside the main room to watch the speakers alone. Chalk one up for my inner critic.
"It's not that we are women," Kat Gordon says in her opening remarks. "It's that we are not men. It's the otherness." That hits home for me… maybe this isn't just for creatives after all. Cindy Gallop echoes similar sentiments: It's not that we are women, it's that we are a minority. This applies to race and ethnicity. It's applicable to the world of business as a whole.
Perhaps I belong here after all.
At break time, though, my inner critic crashes the party. I wander quietly to a corner table and secretly begin chanting. "Please don't let it be another 8 hours before someone talks to me." Picking up a piece of fruit, I comment to the lady next to me about how great it is that there are healthy snacks. She introduces herself and just a moment later, I find myself saying something I never would have said before: "I was so nervous about coming here by myself. "
Then, the best piece of advice I've received in a long time: "Everyone is just wishing someone would come up and talk to them." I thank her, tuck that advice in my pocket, and begin to repeat my new mantra as I walk up to a new set of women. It is much easier this time.
The speakers are empowering, they are funny, and they are relevant. I was spoken to. These women get it -- they get me. The energy in the room is palpable as ideas gain traction and people are inspired. It is electric and enveloping. My notebook & twitter feed are filling with great quotes.
The panels discussed strategy & trends, while highlighting some of the HR concerns we experience. I found real truth in "It's called maternity leave. Not maternity exit" although it held true for people dealing with aging parents as well as new babies.
Day Two takes a more holistic approach to us as people. The speakers were very well-curated and the organizers knew their audience. The morning started with keynote speaker Scott Stratten, who is well-spoken, very relevant, and, it should be noted, he’s hilarious. Read QR Codes Kill Kittens or look up his youtube videos online. Actually, do both..
The panels progressed and recurring themes began to emerge. There was emphasis placed on honoring yourself creatively, professional and personally. We meditated -- yes, meditated, and it was powerful. We put emphasis on friendships and our health. We heard from strong women, and we heard from strong men who support strong women.
I stick around for lunch that day and ended up sitting with a lovely group of welcoming women, including the founder of the 3% conference, Kat Gordon. We swap stories, offer advice and chat about the conference. I have no intention of sharing all of the ideas that had been bubbling in my mind the last few days but before I can even reconsider the words coming out of mouth I hear myself saying the words "sweaty palmed" to Kat Gordon, describing the difference in arriving at the conference alone yesterday and the feeling of camaraderie that permeates the conference today. She is humble and strong and inspiring. I looked up to her before we broke bread together, and leave even more in awe.
That afternoon I notice my notebook entries have changed from verbatim speaker quotes to my own ideas and observations. I have stopped absorbing and started processing. This continues well into my flight back to LA and has continued incrementally since my return. I learned about other career paths and found interesting perspectives on agency life. It forced me to de-friend my inner critic, to shut her down and get out there. I met women that were inspiring and supportive and fearless. It was a professional conference that moved me to my personal core. I arrived at the conference alone and left feeling a part of something greater.
So this serves as my confession to all the 3-percenters who attended the conference with me. I am not a creative -- but I was right at home among you.