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How to plan an inclusive women-in-leadership conference

Melissa Alam speaking at FearlessCon 2017. February 28, 2018 Category: EventFeatureFeaturedLongMethod
Women are underrepresented in every major professional arena where decision making happens. But when women come together to share knowledge and resources, they create room for change.

That’s why some folks have dedicated their time and energy to building conferences that are geared toward diverse populations of women.

Melissa Alam is a digital marketing strategist, photographer and entrepreneur who uses her digital platform, Femme & Fortune, to empower women to start their own businesses. In 2015, Alam started the first annual FearlessCon, an annual leadership conference that also encourages women to hone their entrepreneurial spirit.

“One reason that I started FearlessCon was because I went to a startup conference in Philly and all of the speakers were white men — there was one black guy there, but there were no females speaking,” said Alam. “I was like, ‘This is absurd,’ these are all stories that I’m not going to relate to, or professional career trajectories that I am not going to relate to because I am not a white man.”

FearlessCon 2017. (Courtesy photo)

Similarly, Women in Nonprofit Leadership Conference (WNLC) was launched in 2017 with the goal bringing  women leaders — and aspiring women leaders — in the nonprofit sector together in order to learn from each other, build networks and discuss issues relevant to their fields.

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Erika McDaniel is one of the WNLC organizational leaders who was part of the team who put together the first conference in 2017. As a young woman of color in a diverse group, McDaniel said she was able to use her unique perspective and experiences to help create more robust programing.

“A lot of the event’s diversity had to do with us,” said McDaniel. “I am a person of color and I think I am on the younger end of people on the leadership committee, so my network skews a little more heavily to that — to not just people in the nonprofit space, but up-and-comers and rising stars.”

Alam and McDaniel shared the tools and strategies they use to keep their women-in-leadership conferences inclusive.

Assemble a team that can handle such a heavy load.

Women in Nonprofit Leadership Conference 2017. (Courtesy photo)

Creating any kind of conference is a major undertaking. Logistically, organizers need to plan for the event’s space, speakers, securing sponsorships or partnerships, marketing, outreach and a number of other things that won’t be recognized until they actually happen.

Since there are so many moving pieces, McDaniel believes it’s essential to have a strong team where each person has a defined role that best fits their skill set.

“It is important to be thoughtful and strategic in planning the leadership group but not thinking that any one or two people can do by themselves,” said McDaniel. “I know as women we sometimes think that, ‘I can do it, I can handle it, I can take this thing over.’ It is really good to delegate work.”

Book speakers and workshop hosts who reflect your audience — and the same goes for marketing materials.

FearlessCon 2017. (Courtesy photo)

Representation matters, especially when it comes to helping your audience feel welcome and at home.

Alam said the best way to host an inclusive and diverse event is to make sure these traits are deeply considered when determining who is participating in panel discussions, who is leading the workshops and who is giving the keynote speech.

“We had to say no to a lot of keynotes because we are looking for a minority who has an interesting story,” said Alam, “someone that more people can relate to in terms of how they grew their business.”

Alam said she believes that it’s not only necessary for speakers to reflect the intended audience, but the faces on the branding materials as well.

“I put women of all colors and, shapes, in the marketing beforehand as well so people know what to expect,” said Alam.

Pick partners or sponsors who are dedicated to your event’s mission.

Erika McDaniel at WNLC 2017. (Courtesy photo)

Sponsorships are a dime a dozen and not particularly difficult to come by, McDaniel said. But she thinks it wise to work with others who care about the event and don’t mind getting their hands dirty.

“One of the things that makes this event so successful is that we have a lot of really great partners — and I don’t say sponsors because our sponsors are great partners,” said McDaniel, “may it be helping us get the venue or helping us to manage different things. It helps to lift some of the burden. [They] who want to do so much more than write a check and send a few bodies to the event.”

The second annual Women in Nonprofit Leadership Conference will be taking place on Wednesday, April 11, at the National Museum of American Jewish History. The next FearlessCon is slated to be held in mid- to late-2018.

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