Creating More Inclusive Conferences With Intent

How to build a conference, panel, or summit around experts who best reflect the people in an industry.

Recently, Heather Long of the Washington Post published an article about what it is like to be a woman at America’s biggest economic conference.

“There are over 500-panel presentations at the conference, and I attended seven of them. Four of these had all-male panels. …But what was really striking was how women were not featured prominently even for work they had done,” she wrote.

While I work in marketing rather than economics, it resonated. Even when its primary function is to build campaigns that resonate and set trends, the creative and marketing industry still struggles with its own gender and racial biases — and, worse, all under the guise of embracing “authenticity.”

Authentic vs. Intent

Authenticity is tapping into our innermost desires, passions, personality, and organic decision-making process. It’s embracing who we are — our origins, our ambition, our race, our gender, our sexual orientation. There is a lot of personal empowerment in being authentic.

WeWork’s campaign slogan, “Do What You Love”, really speaks to our innermost desires to build the thing. Burger King’s “Have It Your Way” speaks to staying authentic, too. Doing what you love and having it your way is a great starting point, but it’s missing the other side of the equation. You can’t build a business on love alone. There are rules to abide by, promises to keep, bills to pay. And a diet that abides by what I want to eat rather than what I should eat is the line between authenticity and intention.

What set of rules should I follow: the intentional ones or the authentic ones? And can we do both?

Working With Intention

Being intentional can be a difficult exercise in an industry hell-bent on being authentic.

As an agency, we often use “authenticity” in our brand pitch and discovery sessions. Many agencies do. We want to help companies find their authentic voice — whatever that really means. But how about we start, first, with an intentional one?

To be intentional is to make decisions based on how you intend to be perceived, how you intend to shape culture, how you intend to produce a product. For me, being intentional about not eating junior whoppers as my primary food source is honoring my intent to live a relatively healthy lifestyle.

At the DC-based marketing and design agency I run with my business partner, we are 100% intentional about the team we are building. Our team is small at only nine employees, but seven of our members — including me — are women. Two, both designers, are men. One could argue (and we do) that we need to be more inclusive of men on our team. Our team is 55% White American. 45% of our team is Asian, Hispanic, and Black. We hire based on a set of values and ensure that the individuals we recruit are representative of the firm we are intent on building.

Working with Authenticity Alone

In 2018, I attended an industry conference produced by the regional advertising association here in Washington, DC.

In the first four hours of the conference, including a VIP executive breakfast that began at 8AM, the line up featured:

  • An introducing speaker: a White man.
  • An executive breakfast keynote: a White man.
  • A residing president speech: a White man.
  • A keynote themed “Shattering Conventional Wisdom”: a White man.
  • A Brand Trust Research panel: 100% all men, all White.
  • A panel on Brand Authenticity: 100% all White; three men, and two women. They were even brave enough to talk about how they address diversity.
  • A lunch keynote: a White man.

These speakers were experts, provided valuable insights, and earned their time on stage. The question I kept asking myself as I surveyed the incredibly diverse audience was: were they not intent on finding a woman and person of color capable of presenting on the same topic?

There are limitless examples in the industry where the intent trumped being authentic. Pepsi’s Kylie Jenner vs. the police campaign comes to mind as does Dove’s 2017 racially insensitive ad campaign that they quickly pulled from Facebook. I don’t doubt that these were both created with an intent to be “woke” and racially inclusive. Where they fell short is that it zero’d in on the lack of authenticity at the center of each brand: if their teams were truly diverse and representative of the intent, these ads would have never seen the light of day. They were not — at least back in 2017 — authentically woke or (obviously) inclusive.

To be authentic, you need to set the intent. To set the intent, you need to ensure it aligns with the values at the center of who you are as a brand or a person.

Setting Intent And Being Authentic

I love the way that marketing legend Seth Godin defines authenticity as “consistent emotional labor.”

“Someone is authentic when their actions are in alignment with what they promise,” he writes.

There are two industry conferences I attend annually that are leading the way on building inclusive, expert-led events. Adobe’s 99U, hosted in New York City, centers around design thinking. I’ve never seen a more inclusive lineup of speakers in ethnicity, gender, age, orientation, and abilities. I’ve also never been more inspired. SXSW, the everything conference and festival held in Austin, TX limits every panel to four speakers, of which one must be female (and, cannot also be the moderator).

For anyone planning a conference with the intent of it being diverse and authentic, consider establishing a set of guidelines to ensure your intention aligns with how it will be perceived.

  • Set and follow requirements for the type of experts needed for each panel. If you accept industry submitted content, set speaker guidelines and always require a slot for a woman and a person of color.
  • As a speaker, require conferences to be committed to inclusivity before agreeing to speak. If you notice a lack of diversity in the lineup, speak up, and make it one of your requirements. Timothy Goodman — a famous illustrator and creative thinker — demands this of any conference he speaks at.
  • Set the intention: just like any good yoga practice or meditation session, set the intention at the start of planning. This will guide any brand, organization, company, or human into true well-intentioned authenticity.

About Julie Weber

Julie Weber is a partner at Brllnt, a women-owned marketing and design agency based in Washington, DC. She has been building well-intentioned and authentic campaigns since 2006 and worked as a writer prior to her career in marketing and communications. She lives in Washington with her husband, dog, and fireplace.