Ellevate Summit: Chapter Leader Retreat

This year’s Ellevate Network Summit was the first time I attended the conference, and also the first time I attended the chapter leader retreat the day before. These events took place in my former home of New York City and this trip was also the first time I had been back to the city in the ten years since I moved to San Diego. It was quite a whirlwind trip! I fit in a little bit of sightseeing and visiting a few friends as well.

The Chapter Leader Retreat was a half-day event of learning and networking with leaders of Ellevate chapters from around the globe, at an art gallery event space in NoHo. I was the only San Diego leader attending this year, and I was one of two west coast leaders in attendance. Note to Ellevate: Please bring a summit of some type to the west coast! I hear San Francisco has a ton of companies who would love to sponsor and/or provide space. 

The retreat started with the Ellevate HQ team introducing themselves and welcoming us. It then featured three speakers: Melanie Curtis, life coach and author; Nakia James Jenkins of Girls Who Code, diversity and inclusion expert; Kristy Wallace, CEO of Ellevate; with special networking exercises facilitated by Madeline Schwartz, communication and career coach, in between.

Melanie Curtis: Facing Fear and Getting Clear on Your Values

Melanie Curtis, life coach, author of the book Power to Fly, and professional skydiver, began her lessons with the stories of meeting three people she admired, all at different times in her life. The first person was Weird Al Yankovic, a musician she admired growing up. She was asked to be a stunt double for someone in a project he was working on. “I believe love and hilarity are the most important things in life, in that order,” she said. When she met him, she was very nervous and made a comment she regretted about the strange green screen-effect hat he was wearing.

The second role model she met was Martha Beck, a best-selling author, life coach, and speaker whom Melanie saw eight years ago when she herself was a brand-new life coach. “I could barely squeak out a hello and thank you to her, then I burst into tears for no reason,” she said. She reflected on the emotional experience she had meeting one of her heroes and realized it meant she was on the right path as a speaker/coach.

The third hero or role model Melanie told us about was author, speaker, and amazing human, Elizabeth Gilbert, a year ago. Melanie said she was totally relaxed, just a little nervous, about meeting Liz and was able to clearly express her gratitude and love. She counts Liz as an elevated #1 mentor in her life as a writer and human being.

Melanie spoke to us about fear and values, and asked how fear manifested in these three scenarios. Her experience with Liz showed her growth as a person. Previously, when meeting her role models, she was feeling very attached to the outcome, insecure, and unworthy. When meeting Martha, she said she had felt “disconnected from our shared humanity” and blocked by that. Crying was how fear showed up in that scenario for her. 

Fear can show up in different ways emotionally, mentally, and physically. Your throat may constrict, your chest might feel tight, you could be sweaty, or have a foggy brain. Imposter syndrome is an example of how fear manifests in us, a phrase that caused every head in the room to nod in a shared experience.

If we’re putting ourselves in situations where we’re going to grow, how do we get through the fear? Breathe, Melanie said. When Melanie was doing formation skydiving competitions, whenever she would physically feel tension and fear creep up, she would deliberately exhale it from the body. This technique helps in so many situations, she said.

Melanie continued her story by telling us about her best friend Carolyn, whose life and work teaching diversity, equality, and inclusion means she would have fit in well with our audience that day. Mel and Carolyn have a shared love of skydiving teams and crazy costumes. Mel met Carolyn when Carolyn was a young jumper and Mel was coaching skydiving. Mel had some experience at that point, as well as a brand new sponsorship, so Carolyn was excited to meet Mel. A few years into their friendship, Carolyn revealed that the first 20 minutes she knew Mel, Carolyn thought Mel was a complete “a-hole” bragging about her sponsorship. Melanie said she didn’t know it would impact someone to talk about that, and in that moment she realized people were looking at her as a leader and she had influence. She learned she needed to “wield her power for good.”

She sees this leadership position as an opportunity to show up as a kind, nice, approachable, welcoming, funny person. Since then she has focused on her values of positivity, humor, and inclusion.

“Do you see that responsibility in leadership?” she said. You serve as an example, you model behaviors as you move up the ladder. An audience member said one of her favorite sayings is “Don’t mistake my kindness as weakness.” Remember your core values, and think about how you want to show up as a leader. Boundaries and self-care are needed as well. 

“Intention magnifies our ability to make an impact,” Melanie said.

Next, Melanie told us about one of her favorite skydiving students, Jim. Jim, a senior citizen, wanted to learn how to base jump so he needed to learn skydiving first. He ended up loving skydiving and went on thousands of jumps, leading Mel to eventually recommend him for work in commercials such as V-8 juice. Around this time, Mel realized she needed more in her life than skydiving and began her career exploration and transition to life coaching. “I thought life coaching was either a scam, or my calling…” she said. She was afraid it was going to be a scam, uncool, and not real, so was surprised when it became her life. The coaching school she wanted to go to was $8000, which she didn’t have and feared not being able to pay off the credit card for it, but enrolled anyways on her birthday. A while later she saw Jim again and he said he left her something in her office. She found a shoebox of stacked $100 bills, $5000 worth, along with a note from Jim saying “I’ve always wanted to give a shoebox full of money to a deserving person. The V-8 commercial paid $15K, here’s $5K untaxable.” (Jim was a retired tax accountant). Melanie felt seen, appreciated, and supported, and learned that in trusting our gut, we are rewarded. She could now pay off the credit card she charged her life coach school on.  It reinforced her core values to listen to intuition even though it was scary, show generosity, and do the courageous and brave thing … balanced with preparation and consideration. 

Many times she sees women prepping or over-educating, not doing or taking action, or women just say “screw it” and do without prepping, so her value is a balance of the two. The audience said this shoebox full of money experience is a lesson in the importance of believing in yourself and investing in yourself, by seeing beyond the immediate.

Your core values are what do you care about, how does it matter to you, how do you see it in your own stories. Live by your values. We never know where the things we choose to do and the connections we make will take us. Her friend Carolyn’s candor impacted Melanie in a big way, causing her to reanalyze how she was being perceived as a leader and intentionally change for the better.

A few final takeaways from Melanie’s talk:

  • How we face challenges makes all the difference
  • Our biggest challenges are our biggest opportunities
  • She encourages sharing openly the things you are interested in, and merely expressing that is bravery, trusting that someone or something will help make it happen
  • What is your opportunity now? Do those things.
  • Her values: Trust, Be brave, be generous
  • We never know how the things we choose to do will impact others and change the world
  • We need awareness of our core values so we know how to spend our energy
  • What do you believe and how do you want to use it to live and lead? How can you start today?
  • Don’t just go to events and “be inspired” … do something!

Nakia James Jenkins: Expanding Our Equity Lens

Nakia James Jenkins, VP of People & Culture at Girls Who Code, diversity and inclusion expert, started her talk by saying that before she can ask others to expand their equity lens, she had to look at her own. She realized her inner circle consisted of many people who look like herself, so she began pushing herself to expand her network, through organizations like Ellevate and other groups of people different from herself. She does not want to ask people to do what she is not doing herself.

She said that the objective as leaders at events (the audience of chapter leaders) was to connect with everyone in our network and ensure they feel included.

Her first year as an Ellevate member she maybe did two activities, honestly, she said. This proves that just because people show up doesn’t mean they feel included and will return.

Activity 1: 

Form a 4 person team:

  • Someone with a black purse
  • Someone with an opposite shirt color as your own (bright or dark)
  • Someone with a funky phone case
  • Someone with open-toed shoes

Then pick a partner in that group and answer questions about each other by guessing/assumptions:

  • What is their favorite TV genre?
  • What do you think they ate for dinner last night?
  • Where do you think they went on their last vacation?
  • Who is their favorite artist/entertainer?
  • What is their origin?

When comparing and discussing answers afterward as a group, we found we were usually choosing universal answers that many people would choose. Only two people in the room got four out of five questions right for their partner.

Think about equity from a networking perspective, Nakia said. We usually gravitate toward those we THINK are similar to ourselves because of our assumptions or guesses, similar to this activity. The answers we get right on the previous questions are usually similar to our own answers. You have a connection because you think you have something in common.

A pause is needed because we have been programmed to immediately gravitate to what seems familiar, since it is easier to engage and allows us to feel more confident. But as leaders, that pause will dictate the success of the event for someone else. Intentionally pause to counteract the assumptions.

Examples on how to do it: Try to have the exact same welcome for every person at your event and later ask if they know anyone or if they are alone, like shepherding.

One leader in the audience looks different than the people in the city she moved to, so she started making assumptions that people were making assumptions about her.

Equity is individualized, you all see the world through your own lens.

Nakia said as chapter leaders, you are responsible for getting to know every person that shows up to an event, that is your job. Even if you’ve never seen this type of person, pause to ensure you are engaging with everyone the same.

If you’re asking, ‘why can’t I expand my network, why are the same 20 people showing up,’ start to see and consider the people that are not showing up. Seeing who is coming and who is not is part of the equity lens. Track for the people who did not show up as much. Who came once or twice but not again? Why? As a networking organization, we need to reach out and bring them in and KEEP them. Intentionally create a space where they know they are welcome to come back.

When running an event we can get caught up in logistics. Time is the most important piece because as leaders we are always juggling multiple things so the only way things happen is with a pause.

Questions to ask yourself when you’re getting too caught up in logistics at your event: 

  • Who did I spend the most time with at the event? 
  • Who did I miss?
  • Who have you taken the time to engage with at that event?
  • There are a million events to go to, why choose yours?
    • Because I remembered you said hi and emailed me to say I meant to connect with you and I missed it.
    • Time is a premium for everyone.

One chapter in the audience has a strategy of who to connect with: they put a star on the person’s nametag if they haven’t been to an event before, so leaders know to engage with them. Some chapters have every leader make sure to connect with 2 people at the event.

Another chapter suggested their technique of asking what the guest is looking for at Ellevate, not just how they heard about it.

Kristy Wallace: Sneak Peek of Ellevate Summit

Kristy Wallace came in from the pouring rain at the end of the retreat. She was at a corporate partner roundtable that day who was talking about how they don’t know how to get leadership involved in diversity and inclusion efforts (D&I), and they don’t know how to have a conversation about D&I beyond gender “We’ll be talking about all that tomorrow at the Summit,” she said.

“It’s not on the leaders, politicians, or advocates, it’s on all of us to get an action plan in place together. Right here is where it happens,” Kristy said.

Networking is everything. Kristy said she got every one of her jobs from it. “It’s the glue that holds us together and the power that drives us forward.” 

After the Retreat

We had about two hours before the next planned activity, which was about 15 minutes distance away. I went wandering through SoHo in the rain with my new friends from the Twin Cities Ellevate team, feeling helpful at navigating though I had been away from the city for a long time. Eventually, we made our way to the Squarespace office near the West Village for the VIP cocktail reception. 

Ellevate VIP Cocktail Reception

This reception, in a space with a great view,  was more networking and introductions to the Ellevate HQ team, Ellevate Chair and Ellevest CEO & Founder Sallie Krawcheck, Ellevate CEO Kristy, chapter leaders who may have been in another part of the room of whose plane/train/work schedule prevented them from being at the earlier retreat, and also sponsors and partners for the Summit. The Chicago leaders, from my childhood home state, said they adopted me for the event.

It was great to meet so many amazing women with similar interests and missions!

Sallie and Kristy spoke for a few minutes during the reception.

Stay tuned to the next blog for notes on the Summit the next day!

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