Today in Female Empowerment: ON THE FRONT LINES

On a recent early evening, I was sitting in a cafe finishing up some work and sipping on a glass of wine. The happy hour crowd materialized and I very quickly found myself wedged between two groups of networkers: group #1 consisted of three men and group #2 consisted of about fifteen women.


I started toggling back and forth in my brain between the two clusters, pretending to be completely absorbed in my website updates, but instead listening intently to their various conversations.


Initially, I was more interested in the conversation the three besuited men were having. One was obviously a venture capitalist, and the other two were founders pitching him an idea and picking his brain for connections. The discussion rapidly became intense and in-depth. I love hearing about raising capital and other aspects of early-stage companies (not least because I’m in it right now!) and revel in the different verbiage associated with all of it, so I was instantly intrigued.


The women, on the other hand, were louder (they were, of course, 5x the size of the men) and more overtly enthusiastic, wearing pretty and professional floral dresses and blown-out hair. Based on the questions they initially were asking (“Where do you work, Mandy?” and “Jen, what’s your role?”), I knew they were strangers brought together for some curated networking by the tall blonde who was clearly the ringleader, corralling them onto couches and into glasses of wine. 


At first, listening to the women, I found myself almost rolling my eyes. Ladies, please don’t perpetuate the stereotypes, I silently beseeched them. Stop being so loud, so complimentary to each other. Get down to it. Start talking BUSINESS.


***


What I observed about the men, who were talking BUSINESS: From the start, all of them--including the potential investor (who, ostensibly, had less to prove)--bent over backwards to not only share knowledge (i.e., interrupt each other constantly with a one-up) but primarily to brag about their accomplishments. 


The conversation was a literal of embarrassment of riches:


“I was at Sequoia with some folks I knew yesterday - they’re really interested.”


“I sold it easy for $15 million and am moving on...”


“Access is no problem.”


“Oh definitely, a Series B is right on the horizon.”


“‘THAT was the filtered deal front?! I couldn’t believe it!’”


“‘I knew him from Princeton,’” said one, and the other jumped in, “‘Oh that’s funny, because I knew him from Princeton, too.’”


“There are deals EVERYWHERE.”


“I’ve got people for intros. Send me your deck.”


It felt like the American Ninja Warrior of finance where the three men competed to advance over $8 glasses of wine and each other. They weren’t genuinely interested in each other. They were all there to get ahead individually. 


Then the main investor guy left and the download with the remaining two started.


“Holy shit did you hear that dick, ugh, that isn’t going to work.” 


They started talking shit about the potential investor, with whom they’d been bloviating just five minutes prior.


And they were really rude to the bartender, too. 


Cue the shift in my perception. 


***


What I observed about the women: When they first congregated, I heard snippets of what at first felt like basic bandying. 


“Turning 40 wasn’t as bad as I thought--I feel so much wiser now! How do you feel?”


“Your hair is so pretty--where do you get it cut?”


“Let’s connect on LinkedIn!”


“Have you been to the Real Real yet? So much better than fast fashion. Sustainability is CHIC!” (Laughter trills).


But digging a little deeper, I noticed something: these women, who a short time earlier had been strangers to each other, were actually bonding and collaborating. 


And hours later, the women were all still there, chatting intimately. Making real connections. Talking about way more than their age, hair, or hot spots for used clothing purchases. They were talking about what made them tick.


***


From the outside, the women didn’t differ much from the men. They were all dressed well, used similar corporate jargon (I definitely heard “run it up the flagpole,” “synergy” and “move the goalpost” more than once on both sides of the aisle), and were drinking the same happy hour specials.


The difference was in their approach to interacting, how they connected, and likely, how they would do business with one another down the line.


In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Deborah Tannen writes, early on, “Girls tend to learn conversational rituals that focus on the rapport dimension of relationships whereas boys tend to learn rituals that focus on the status dimension.”


And though that socialization certainly contributes to some of the inequality and societal imbalance we’re still experiencing in 2019, there’s also power in it. 


I’d naively thought it was the men who were “deep”--I said at the beginning that I was initially more interested in listening to and learning from them, because I perceived them to be powerful--they exuded the confidence and privilege that signifies that trait, at least to me, at least at the very beginning of this fateful journey in a little wine bar.


I was forced, right then and there, to interrogate my own biases. The power I perceived in the men was a house of cards: they might never speak again, and if they did, it would be perfunctory and solely for each individual’s advancement professionally. 


Nothing inherently wrong with that. But I’ve seen how powerful the deep connections of women can go -- in the early days of my last company, Uplift, an early evening group class got rained out in Central Park, and instead of canceling, on a whim we herded everyone across the street to a bar to hang out. For hours, women who had never met before were sipping wine, networking, hanging out, and becoming friends and workout buddies. Those relationships continue to this day. That was the seed to the powerful Uplift community I created, and the start to the positive change and empowerment I fostered in the lives of countless women. 


I’ve written before about the vital importance of women’s inner circles and the “power of the pack,” and how it helps them (and me!) succeed. In my view, it was the networking women at the bar who were actually becoming more powerful, through the forging of real connections, lasting impressions, and strength in numbers. They were the real deal(s).


No

, we may not yet hold the keys to the kingdom--or Sequoia Capital--but we’re a lot closer than ever before: we’re in it together, and we’re playing the long game.

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