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  • Writer's pictureRaji Writes

Watermark Conference for Women, 2019 (The Power of Us!)

“The Power of Us” was this year’s theme for the fifth annual Watermark Conference for Women Silicon Valley, attended by over 7000 women, at the San Jose Convention Center on February 22, 2019. I had attended this conference in 2018, and having found it inspiring, was keen to attend it this year as well.

I had set my alarm for 5:30 AM, to get ready and get to San Jose in time for a 7AM Leadership breakfast hosted by Prudential Financial. Fortified with selections from a spread of coffee, tea, muffins, mini-quiches and fruit, about 100 women settled down to listen to the speaker, writer Jean Case who is chair of the National Geographic Society and CEO of the Case Foundation.

She gave a presentation on her book "Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose." Case described her book as a storytelling book.

She told the story of Barbara Van Dahlen, a licensed clinical psychologist and mental health sole proprietor, who wanted to build a national network though which other mental health professionals would give one hour of their time free of charge to those in need. In 2005, she started the nonprofit “Give an Hour” and has since been named one of the hundred most influential people in the world. Its mission states “At Give an Hour we believe that within our communities we have the resources to address many of the challenges that face society - challenges that often result in emotional pain and suffering. By harnessing the skills and generosity of citizens across our nation and around the world, we provide those in need with help and hope.”

You have to take risks, said Case. Nothing great comes from staying in your comfort zone. She gave the example of National Geographic, which is 131 years old. The technology at that time was photography using film. National Geographic adapted to the digital age, and is the first brand to reach hundred million Instagram followers. In contrast, although digital photography was invented at Kodak, the company chose to focus on traditional technologies. It lost out and ended up filing chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Case was the youngest of four kids raised by a single mother in Normal, Illinois. She worked at General Electric and at the time it was the most valuable company in the world. She left GE to join a startup for the Internet revolution. She gave another example of taking risks: Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, wouldn’t say at 80 years of age “Darn I missed my December bonus!” had he stayed with the job he held; he would say at 80 “I missed the Internet revolution.” Not everyone is in a position to take that risk, she acknowledged. But if you truly care about something, there’s never been a better time.

During the Q&A session, one attendee asked how to go about constructing her personal brand. Case responded that people who know you well are in the best position to make your “word cloud.” She suggested making it formal, assembling a group of people who could be your mentors, and having regular meetings. She underscored the importance of mentorship and modeling for young girls.

Morning Keynote Session

Marlene Williamson, CEO of Watermark, spoke of virtual reality training for promoting diversity, introduced Watermark’s Learning Center, and announced a partnership with Athena San Diego LLC. She ended by saying “I want to live in a world where all women are seen as what they are: human beings.”

Laysha Ward, Target’s EVP and chief engagement officer recognized five women as Target storytellers.

In honoring them, she quoted from Pearl Cleage’s poem “We Speak Your Names

Excerpt from "We Speak Your Names" by Pearl Cleage Because we are free women, born of free women, who are born of free women, back as far as time begins, we celebrate your freedom. Because we are wise women, born of wise women, who are born of wise women, we celebrate your wisdom. Because we are strong women, born of strong women, who are born of strong women, we celebrate your strength. Because we are magical women, born of magical women, who are born of magical women, we celebrate your magic.

Robin Washington, EVP and CFO of Gilead Sciences , introduced Gloria Steinem, feminist icon and political activist.

On her influence over the years, Washington spoke of the Broadway play, “Gloria, A Life” as well as a film in the making called “The Glorias: A Life on the Road” based on the life of Steinem.

Steinem is my “Smith sister” (as we Smithies call other Smithies), having graduated magna cum laude from Smith College in 1956. Soon after, her 1963 expose of Playboy Club was an early example of her advocacy for women's rights. Her career suffered on account of this undercover reporting, and she later said “At first, it was such a gigantic mistake from a career point of view that I really regretted it… Be warned that if you're a woman journalist and you choose an underground job that's related to sex or looks, you may find it hard to shake the very thing you were exposing.”

Steinem, 84, came on stage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. She sat for a conversation with Celeste Headlee, former NPR reporter and author of “We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter.”

Asked about the current state of country, Steinem paraphrased Charles Dickens to say "It is the best of times, it is the worst of times." A sobering finding is that for the first time, there are fewer women than men in the world. And “thanks to a certain guy in a certain office, we are woke!”

Headlee, a lively, competent and engaging moderator, asked how many times Steinem had been arrested. Steinem replied that she had been arrested and booked once, in front of a South African Embassy in Washington DC, where she was protesting apartheid.

Headlee asked “Is it more difficult to be a woman at home or at the office?” Steinem replied "Until men are equal in the home, women aren't going to be equal outside the home."

There is a gap between activism and going to the polls. How do we broach this? Steinmen responded that we need a vast reform of our voting laws. We make it more difficult than any country in the world. She added that only a fraction of those in the first march for women’s rights voted in 2016.

Is there a connection between racism and sexism? Steinem recommended the book “Sex and World Peace”. The biggest predictor of military violence, she said, is violence against females. It’s what we see first, that one group is meant to dominate another. It’s the same with racism.

Asked about Wilma Mankiller, activist, social worker, community developer and the first woman elected to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation and native peoples, Steinem said she "learned in a deep way that what we want was once here."

On the 2016 elections, Steinem said 99% of black women voted for Hillary Clinton. 50% of white women voted for Trump. She quoted Harriet Tubman, American abolitionist and political activist, who once said “I could free thousands more if only they knew they were slaves.” Steinem said "White women need to learn. Black women have always known they were alone,” and added that the women's movement was always led by women of color - "Black women supported women's liberation at 60% in a Harris Poll, white women at 30%.

Headlee said that it 18, she joined the workforce and at 30, she had the first female boss. All her worst bosses were women. Have we gotten to the point, she asked, where women don’t have to act like men to be a good leader. Steinem answered that thinking that your group is inferior leads to women acting like men.

Finally Headlee asked her about her stage fright, and advice for overcoming. Steinem described her stage fright by saying that she loses all her saliva. She suggested speaking in a more companionable way. Say that public speaking makes you nervous. It breaks the spell and people will be with you.

Somehow the session seemed almost too short—I would have like to listen longer to this living legend. It was a powerful session and the audience rose in applause.

Juniper Networks CEO Rami Rahim introduced Brene Brown, professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. and New York Times best-selling author of "Dare to Lead". To my delight, this book was included in the conference bag for all attendees. I am looking forward to reading it.

Brown started by saying you have to have tough conversations. Everyone is afraid because they don’t want to screw up. To not have a conversation because you’re uncomfortable is the definition of privilege. Courageous leaders are never silent around hard things. Your job is to excavate the unsaid. She suggested a hack: “the story I’m telling myself.” For Brown she called it “the half-ass litany”, she feels like a half-ass mom, half-ass husband, half-ass sister. She talked of this in terms of neurobiology. “The brain says, ‘Give me a story, I need to protect you.’ The brain loves stories. The brain rewards us with calm, regardless of the accuracy of the story. In the absence of data, we make up stories.”

She shared a riveting story about an occasion when she was home when her husband came home from work. She heard him open the refrigerator and then say “Damn, there’s no ham.” This triggered an instant angry response from Brene, who took the statement to mean that she had somehow fallen short in keeping the refrigerator well-stocked. As she and her husband talked about it, it became clear to her that the fact that there was no ham in the fridge was not a judgment on her, it’s just that he was very hungry as he had skipped lunch since he was seeing a patient. She shared the advice she gave her daughter: “If you want a partner, find a partner who believes in shared care and shared work.”

Your brain is trained to believe the stories you tell it. When you’re leading people, you cannot control the stories you’re making up, but you can be courageous and check in with those you lead. And she ended with the exhortation “Be Courageous!”

Breakout Session I

I attended a session entitled “Thinking in Bets: Avoid Emotional Decision-Making & Embrace Uncertainty”. The speaker was Annie Duke, poker champion, decision strategist and author of “Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts”.

Duke is a corporate speaker and consultant on decision-making. She’s a former professional poker player who won more than $4 million in poker and is the only woman to have won the annual poker tournament. She wrote her book after retiring in 2012.

She observed that people weren’t learning as they played poker: they made the same mistakes over and over. Duke shared a Super Bowl video where the coach made a call and the outcome was terrible, and talked of resulting, equating the quality of the decision with the quality of the outcome.

Decision is based on belief. We are poor belief-calibrators. In poker, there is a strong preconceived notion that women are poor players. They’re called “lucky” a lot.

She said the question “Wanna Bet?” can be very effective. Amusingly, she said if her child says "No" to something, she responds with “Wanna Bet?” She says the question asks why might my belief not be true. It gets you more willing to say “I’m not sure.” This is a better place for decision-making.

Approximately 7000 people die because of human drivers and yet when one death is caused by a driverless car, there is a huge uproar. When a woman is a minority, least known by men, she is most likely to be blamed for a poor outcome in a corporate setting.

In response to a question about machine learning for better decision-making, Duke responded and spoke of a Google algorithm that could identify sisters. It only identified white women as sisters. This is because most of the available pictures that were used in the training set were of white women. One attendee asked who to follow in this age of inaccuracy and information overload. Duke suggested to follow Balance on Twitter which asks “Am I my right?” versus “Am I accurate?” Find like-minded people and form a contract.

Breakout Session II

The second breakout session I attended was entitled “Radical Candor: Better Relationships at Work.” This was an outstanding, highly informative and powerfully delivered talk. The speaker was Kim Scott, cofounder and CEO of Candor Inc. and author of the book “Radical Candor”.

Scott started with the story of when she worked at Google, and her boss criticized her. She had had a meeting with Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt to whom she had talked about how the sales had really increased, at which they were quite pleased. As she walked out, her boss Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook executive and author) as to have a word with her. Sheryl said “you say ‘Um’ a lot. How would you feel about a speech coach?” Kim dismissed that suggestion with a wave. Sheryl then stated quite bluntly, “When you say ‘Um’ every third word, it makes you sound insecure and stupid.” Scott asked why it was so easy for Sheryl to tell her this even though no one else had. There were two reasons: first she cared about Kim, and second she never let personal feelings get in the way of telling people things that needed to be said. She showed a very interesting graph.

The horizontal axis is the “Willing to Piss People Off” axis, and the y-axis is the “Give a Damn” axis. Make sure you’re moving in the right vector, she said.

This is a terrific graph - simple, yet insightful, and is quite actionable. It is a great tool for self-awareness. It gave me much food for thought, not only for professional communications, but for personal interactions as well. I think it will be instructive to use this framework to gauge how I communicate with friends and loved ones. Perhaps because of the all the numerous responsibilities we shoulder, I have noticed increased sensitivities on my side as well as at the other end of conversations. I read "Crucial Conversations" some years ago, and Scott's book joins the ranks of all those helpful books that keep us from inserting foot into mouth or worse, resulting in much frustration and pain.

Scott said, when we hear “Be professional,” we interpret that to mean leave emotions, personality, and humanity at the door. The graph provided a framework to not do that. She offered four suggestions to make use Radical Candor for growth and profound change.

  1. Get feedback: don’t dish it out before you can take it. Solicit criticism. Do it 1:1.

  2. Give feedback: both praise and criticism. Be brief. Should be like brushing and cleaning, not deep cleaning at the dentist.

  3. Gauge it, and it is gauged at the other persons ear. Choose your vector. Move up if person cries. Don’t go to ruinous empathy. Attend to the emotions in the room. Eliminate “Don’t take it personally” from vocabulary. Say “I can see you’re upset. How can I help?” If the person doesn’t hear you, go right, be as clear as possible.

  4. Confront gender.

Scott is writing a book called “Radical Reconciliation”. She listed six problems.

She referred to writer Ann Lamott’s book, “Bird by Bird”, urging the audience to get specific.

Giving an amusing example, she told the audience that her kid said to her, “I wish you weren’t the Radical Candor lady, I wish you were a person who minded her own business.”

She spoke of each of the six problems and how to confront them.

  • A. Bias

B. Belief. She told story of being in a meeting overseas in a room full of men. She needed to use the bathroom, and discovered that there was no women's room. The host showed her to a broom closet and asked her to pee in a bucket! The man who was with her said that either she goes to the men’s room, or they would drive back to the hotel so she could use the bathroom and then return. Don’t concede to degrading belief, Scott emphasized.

C. Bullying. When a bully uses gender to dominate, at that point use forceful “You” statements not "I". There is no point arguing.

  • D. Discrimination/harassment/violence. Scott combined these for the purposes of this talk.

Role determines accountability. When you are disoriented, ask what is your role?

Some years ago, Scott was accused by an employee of creating a hostile environment. Her lawyer said, pay $10,000 and make it go away. You don’t have time. 20 years later she wrote her book.

She gave an example of a meeting with her employees where she did not step up to her role. A man (“Vladimir”) was sitting on a table with the garbage can behind him and between his legs. “Sue” needed to throw paper into the trash can. Vladimir said “You want to go between my legs.” Scott was not proud of her response: she did not squelch the inappropriate talk immediately—she waved it off. At that point Scott had acted as a victim, not as a leader: she did not respond as a CEO. The problem is that this escalates over time. She explained that while it’s hard to know what your role is, if you can figure that out, you can figure out your course of action.

She spoke of the path from bias to violence. Of patriarchy, and the dynamics of social interaction.

During the Q&A, and a question about the MeToo movement, she gave an example of a woman who had been harassed by her boss while standing in line at the cafeteria. The man put his hands down her pants, shocking her. She did not think going to Human Resources would be productive, so she discussed the matter with a woman colleague. Then she and the other woman went in together to speak to the man to tell him never to do that again. He never did. Scott pointed that she made a plan and went in with a witness, not alone.

Afternoon Keynote Session

Ann Barlow, the Watermark Board Chair stated that 120 billion people have lived before us on this earth. It is going to take both men and women to achieve what we need to. She announced a partnership with ScholarMatch where students who are the first in their families to go to college are partnered with enthusiastic caring champions. Watermark is recruiting mentors. She suggested that potential mentors sign-up via ScholarMatch.

Karen Walker, Cisco CMO introduced the next speaker, Amanda Southworth, iOS developer, who spoke of mental illness. One in five people from the ages of 3 to 17 have a mental or emotional disorder. She created a mobile App, Anxiety Helper, and founded a nonprofit called Astra Labs. She stated that her problems could’ve been fixed if someone had listened to her. She launched her app on September 25, 2015 and 18 people downloaded it on the first day. She has done more to protect LGBTQ youth than the government, she claimed. Her anger, still evident, has been galvanized. Southworth said we teach outliers that they are the problem. Remove the cracks that kids fall through. I want a better world, she said, but I want you to build it with me.

Naomi Musgrave, VP at Prudential, introduced Serena Williams, tennis superstar and entrepreneur, and Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder and CEO of Bumble. Williams, winner of 23 Grand Slams and powerful advocate for women off-court, launched her own clothing line. As a venture capitalist, she’s looking to support more women entrepreneurs. “Don’t wait to be told your place, take it!” She exhorted the audience.

Four years ago, Herd started Bumble, a dating App that gives women more control than traditional dating apps. “On Bumble, the ball is always in her court.” Serena Williams talked about having a winning mindset, to believe in yourself. “Put your fears in a paper bag, crush it and throw it away,” she said. On her fashion business, she said it is important to have cool designs and every now and then throw in a positive affirmation. Growing up, there were five girls and her mom, and her dad.

Williams served on the Survey Monkey board, and teamed up with them to understand women’s experience in the workplace. Nearly one in three women feel they have to hide their emotions at work.

The support that women want is: 42% want mentorship 26% want emotional guidance and 17% want career advice.

Eight years ago, she had several employees. Her hitting partner was male and her physio was female. The man always asked for a raise, and she always gave it. The physio never did. Williams went to her and said you need to be comfortable asking me for a raise. Herd said that 85% of women were in her company, and no one was asking for a raise. After they hired some men, she found that men were quite comfortable asking for a raise. So the company put biannual reviews in place, and required that everyone has to advocate for yourself.

Serena said that one of her biggest supporters is her dad. For women to get ahead men need to support women. We all need to come together.

Herd talked of micro misogyny, and exhorted the audience to be to talk about uncomfortable issues. Williams said never limit yourself. If you put yourself in a box, the ceiling is low and you can only go so high. She added “There’s no one way to be a woman.” She to talk of taking risks and said just go for it. You’re not going to win every time; taking a risk is the only way to find out.

She talked of delivering her child and having a C-section. She is prone to getting blood clots and developed some. She went through two surgeries and didn’t see her baby for a week. She was heartbroken when she saw a relative giving her baby a bottle, because she wanted to breast-feed. She was very sad, as she was being wheeled into another surgery. When she was feeling unwell, she told the nurse that she needed a scan of her lungs because she felt there was a clot. Herd asked her if she was a doctor on top of everything else! Williams replied that she is a “’Grey’s Anatomy’ doctor”!

So many women, particularly African-American, are not listened to in hospitals. One in four African-American women die in childbirth. Her eldest sister Yetunde Price died of gun violence in a drive-by shooting in 2003, in Compton, CA. In 2016 they founded the Williams Sisters Fund for victims of violence

This keynote session was not fully satisfying for me: I would have liked to hear Serena Williams speak more. Whitney Wolfe Herd did comment at the onset that she had not moderated a session before. Moderators serve a supporting role and the job is to speak just enough to provide relevant topics for the main speaker to address at length, and not a whole lot more. It can be a difficult balance to strike, but is certainly possible.

There was another breakout session as well as some networking events following the keynote. However, I left early, just after the keynote session, as my daughter was returning from India after being away for 3 weeks to attend her cousin’s wedding! I was eager to see her, and as I walked away, the hum of animated conversations from the conference center was replaced by my own reflections of the day.

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