When Nancy Lublin and Caterina Fake, both CEOs of tech startups, agreed to speak at Vanity Fair's Founders Fair, they made a deal. If the moderator asked them about how they balance home life and work life, they'd walk off stage.
"I hate women's conferences," Lublin, CEO and founder of Crisis Text Line, said a few days before the one-day conference aimed at women founders and entrepreneurs.
Founders Fair, which took place Thursday in Brooklyn, New York, is the latest event geared toward women in entrepreneurship. As the industry laments how few women work in the field, let alone start businesses, these types of events have become a regular occurrence.
There's debate about the effectiveness of women's conferences, though. Some question what the impacts are once attendees walk out the door. Others argue there's great merit in finding inspiration and even guidance in the stories of others. Regardless, women's conferences might just be a stopgap until other conferences include a broader range of attendees and speakers.
The Vanity Fair event featured sessions on getting funding, building brand loyalty, engaging in serial entrepreneurship and more. The speakers included actress Reese Witherspoon, fashion designer Tory Burch, the co-chairs of the Women's March on Washington, and Sasheer Zamata of "Saturday Night Live."
Though the sessions focused on industry topics, every so often speakers dipped into gender talk. Witherspoon discussed her experience starting a production company to tell women's stories and feeling like she wasn't immediately taken seriously.
"You have to prove yourself twice as hard; it takes twice as long," she said.
VC firm Aspect Ventures co-founder and managing partner Theresia Gouw talked about not only general funding advice but also how she's noticed that women founders tend to undersell the potential of their companies.
The lineup and concept was enough to draw some 250 people. Lublin said she'd consider the event a success if attendees walked away with a new investment, a new idea or a new relationship.
Lublin isn't down on women's conferences for the sake of it. She's attended quite a few, but ultimately, she said, they run the risk of preaching to the choir.
"It's the same people saying the same thing every time, to the same audience, and everybody just nodding their head and agreeing," Lublin said, "which is to me not really an opportunity to learn or to change anything." She'd prefer to see a more diverse audience, including people who don't automatically buy that there's a diversity problem.
Female Founders Fund, a firm that invests in and tracks startups with women CEOs, found that in 2016, female led startups made up only 17 percent of Series A funding (that's the first round after seed funding) in New York and only 10 percent in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bloomberg found that startups founded by women get on average $23 million less in funding than startups founded by men. And never mind that companies with a woman founder perform 63 percent better than companies without, according to early stage investment firm First Round Capital.
Likely, the women at VF's Founders Fair have some concept of this, though the ways women frame the situation differs.
Gina Bianchini, CEO of social network Mighty Networks, said she disliked the idea of Silicon Valley as an institution, as if it's got a king issuing edicts.
"This notion that it's this thing that's doing something to us, I just have a problem with," she said during a session.
On the flip side, there's something to be said for getting people together.
Shan-lyn Ma, founder and CEO of wedding registry service Zola, who also spoke at Founders Fair, said she's a big believer in the adage "you can't be what you can't see," and a women's conference is a pretty good spot to see that there are, in fact, women finding success in the industry.
"The sad reality is that there's few of us to start with," Ma said. "So it's exciting to be at any gathering where we can together talk frankly about the challenges of founding a startup."
Kathryn Harris, president of professional organization Women in Technology, which puts on events of its own, hopes these types of gatherings help women take a next step in whatever they're doing, be it through a new piece of advice, or a connection with someone in the industry.
"It allows women to get that little bit more inspiration and camaraderie that gives them the oomph to say 'Hey, I can do this,'" she said.
That is, at least, for now.
The future of women's conferences is uncertain. Some see them as a temporary measure until a time when conferences are more inclusive.
"Ideally, you'd just want a technical conference," said Catherine Ashcraft, senior research scientist for the National Center for Women and Information and Technology. "You'd make active efforts to include currently underrepresented groups in it so that it becomes an inclusive conference, rather than these segmented conferences."
In the meantime, there are a few tweaks Ashcraft would like to see. In general, she worries about the damage that could come from treating women like a monolithic group and from acting as though women need to be fixed in order for them to make it in a man's world. And yes, there's too much focus on the issue of work-life balance.
As for Founders Fair, Lublin felt it "bust[ed] up the women's conference mold" with frank discussions that dodged the work-life balance trap.
"The only hint that this was different from other gatherings? Long line for the potty," she said.
Updated, 1:23 pm PT: Adds additional comment from Nancy Lublin.
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