The 2017 Pennsylvania Conference for Women Gave 12,000 Women a Reason to Hope

We woke up on Monday, October 2, to the news that a horrific mass shooting had occurred overnight on the Las Vegas strip. A man, not worthy of naming, had opened fire from a hotel room window onto hundreds of peaceful, unsuspecting concertgoers attending the Route 91 Harvest Festival, killing 58 and injuring over 500 more.

Our collective hearts broke.

Not. Again.

Monday was brutal, with the sound of the gunfire peppering into the night like fireworks haunted our waking conscious. How are we here yet again? How do we return to “normal”?

As I exited the train platform on Tuesday morning, October 3, to attend the 14th annual Pennsylvania Conference for Women, I thought about turning back, about heading into the office, putting my head down and just making it through the day. Just. Make. It. Through. The. Day.

I had been excited about the conference for weeks, maybe months. It was sold out as soon as Michelle Obama was announced as the headliner. How could I not be amped up? But honestly, how could I actually be excited now? I was scared, sad, angry. I was no longer excited. I was catatonic.

But as I worked my way up the escalator to the main hall of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia to register and saw the stream of women, bubbling over with potential and power, my heart ignited with hope. Maybe this day wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe it will be OK. Maybe, just maybe, we can overcome this together.

Twelve thousand women were expected, and I think every one of them turned up, making it the largest annual gathering of women in the country.

Shonda Rhimes signs books.

The day started with Shonda Rhimes, the creator of everyone’s favorite Thursday night TV lineup, teaming up with Carla Harris. These two powerhouse women spoke poignantly from their hearts on how they were able to achieve the groundbreaking milestones in their lives to date:

  • What you name a thing matters. I never named anything an obstacle. Name it an opportunity. -@shondarhimes #PennWomen
  • You don’t belong in the room? Not true. You don’t need confidence. You need courage. I. Belong. In. Any. Room. –@shondarhimes #pennwomen
  • Put your foot on the gas and go for it. You have nothing to lose. –@carlannharris #pennwomen
  • Enjoy every single lesson life brings you. If life gives you a test, if you don’t pass, you will repeat the lesson. –@carlannharris #pennwomen
Former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama and screenwriter, director and producer Shonda Rhimes speak on stage during the Pennsylvania Conference for Women. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images for Pennsylvania Conference for Women)

After lunch, former first lady Michelle Obama delivered the keynote address as an hour-long “chat” with the amazing Shonda Rhimes. What gold nuggets did they share? Too many to count, but the ones that stuck with me include:

Not only did these two powerful women inspire, they taught. Michelle gave advice about organizing your schedule around priorities and not accepting every request that comes your way. Shonda discussed the culture of quality of work over quantity of hours worked within the Netflix culture and what that may mean for working mothers in the future. Michelle also talked about navigating the tricky waters of technology with teenage daughters—something that’s extremely relevant to me as the mother of two daughters. Then, of course, there was also the tear-jerking moment when our former president Barack Obama popped in via video to wish his wife a very sweet happy 25th wedding anniversary, where he touched on Michelle’s “strength, grace, determination and honesty.” Awww.

And Michelle and Shonda weren’t the only women who were inspirational. They were everywhere—from the moderators and the panelists in the breakout sessions, to the exhibitors working the booths in the convention hall to the women sitting next to me in any and every session. Additional featured speakers included best-selling author and one of the top five most viewed TED speakers in the world, Dr. Brené Brown; Shawn Achor, author of “The Happiness Advantage;” and Carla Harris, Wall Street executive and author.

Here are a few more words of wisdom I picked up throughout the course of the day:

I had a chance to talk to a few attendees at the end of the day. “Attending the conference was truly inspiring,” University of Pennsylvania Fellowship Coordinator Alishah Ammons said. “All of the speakers, especially former first lady Michelle Obama and Shonda Rhimes, were incredible. I was challenged to be courageous, confident and compassionate in all areas of my life.”

Comcast Sr. Manager of Content Strategy and Operations, and first-time conference attendee Lauren Simmonds said, “I love conferences because they help me reset and look at my career and life from a more holistic perspective. This year, when I learned that Michelle Obama would be the keynote speaker, I knew I had to get in. Each speaker provided at least a few nuggets of inspiration that I can apply to my life.”

The connections that were made and the actionable ideas that were shared should lead to many new partnerships and opportunities for the women who attended. As Leslie Stiles, President of the Pennsylvania Conference for Women Board, put it, “We hope our attendees will be able to take the extraordinary experiences and learnings from this day and apply them to their lives and in their communities all year long.”

I started the day feeling hopeless, but I left brimming with hope. And as I peered around at the smiles and knowing looks on the faces of the women all around me, I knew I was not alone. The conference, which is non-profit and non-partisan, is truly unique as it offers up a full day of inspiration and professional development for women (and men) at every level of the professional spectrum. We should never forget that there’s more hope in us than fear. I’m already counting down the days until next year’s conference.

To learn more about the 14th annual Pennsylvania Conference for Women, visit their website, follow them on Twitter or visit their Facebook page.

*Bulleted points are shared from my tweets and WICT Philly tweets.