Finding Inspiration and My 2020 Intentions at the TEDWomen’s Conference

Heidi Spirgi

Chief Strategy and Growth Officer at Cornerstone

It’s the start of a new year, which means it’s time to make resolutions for the next 365 days. But in 2020, I’m aiming to set an intention instead. While resolutions focus on ways to fix, change or improve oneself, intentions are more about the determination to act in a certain way and bring something about. My New Year’s intention is two-fold: I want to make more use of my leadership platform, and I want work to advance my company’s social enterprise mission. Achieving these intentions won’t be easy, but luckily, I’ve had a head start: I began working toward this goal late last year when I attended the 2019 TEDWomen Conference in Palm Springs, California.

The three-day event brought together women (and men!) from various ethnicities, nationalities, backgrounds, industries, ages and demographics to discuss the ideas and achievements of astonishing individuals, world leaders, entrepreneurs and thinkers who are looking for new ways to make the world a better place.

I’ve admired TED and its speakers for years, and I knew I could rightfully assume my fellow attendees would offer interesting ideas and lots of inspiration. But I also wanted to attend the conference for my personal career development: I’ve always found that the best inspiration is derived from exposing oneself to people and ideas outside the industry. And so, my leadership team and I decided to attend as a way to spark new ideas and fuel our creative spirits in 2020.

Attending the TEDWomen Conference was a way for us to gain inspiration from bold and brilliant leaders that we could take back to our work and personal lives and use to drive bigger impact in all that we do. Here are some stories that particularly inspired me — as well as my takeaways around the profound impact that women can have in the workplace.

The Ability to Take Risks Is Essential (Oh, Shit! Moments)

Audacious outlooks and constant risk-taking was an inescapable theme at the conference. Each speaker was proof that in order to make any kind of real impact in the world or workplace, boldness is required. These women were brave enough to color outside the lines and innovate to solve problems old and new.

Take, for example, Jasmine Crowe, a hunger hero and social entrepreneur who had the courage to reexamine how the United States handles its hunger epidemic. Today, one in nine people in the U.S. struggle with hunger or food insecurity and, according to Crowe, our modern approach to the hunger epidemic is doing little to effectively solve the problem. For instance, most food bank donations aren’t exactly healthy—Velveeta and CapriSun are technically edible, but they do not make up a balanced diet. In her session, Crowe explained how and why she developed Goodr, an app that helps organizations track and then donate their surplus fresh food waste. A restaurant can use the app to donate its leftover produce to food kitchens at the end of a week instead of sending it to a landfill. Crowe and her Goodr team even fund pop-up grocery stores that collect leftover foods and sell them on a pay-what-you-can basis.

Jiabao Li, a perception engineer, was another speaker who is using her design and engineering skills to solve a more modern problem: the negative effects of algorithms and their ability to influence our perception of the world, our knowledge and even our identities. During her session, she demonstrated the frightening power of algorithms with a helmet-like wearable that, when worn, turns everything to a shade of red. Algorithms have a similar effect. Most Instagram feeds, for example, are littered with bias and deliver only the shades of the world deemed most preferable to the user based on past social engagement. As part of this project, Li is also working on a plugin for devices that dilutes the power of an algorithm. Hearing about this plugin gave me a glimmer of hope that we can fight the bias created by technology.

The transcending work of women like Crowe and Li requires risk-taking: Both looked past constructs and thought critically about today’s problems to find solutions that not only work better, but also may result in a better world for us all. They reaffirmed the power of audacity for me; as a result, I am going to continue deliberately creating what I like to call "Oh, Shit! Moments" for my team where I reframe failure as an opportunity to shift perspectives.

Fostering New Models of Leadership

I was also inspired by the conference’s exploration of new, more female-focused leadership models. These conversations reminded me of a New York Times op-ed piece by Ruth Whippman, titled "Enough Leaning In. Let’s Tell Men to Lean Out." In her piece, Whippman argues that instead of encouraging women to mimic the assertiveness and confidence of their male peers to get ahead in the workplace, we need to rethink and possibly even replace this male-defined value system with one that incorporates the strengths and priorities of women.

One speaker experienced this change herself: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Laureate, former president of Liberia and the first democratically-elected female leader in all of African history. During her time in office, she led Liberia to recovery following a decade-long civil war and helped stem the nation’s Ebola crisis of 2014-2015. Sirleaf also purposefully appointed as many women as possible to her cabinet and, in doing so, drew a conclusion somewhat similar to Whippman’s: When women are in positions of power, they have different priorities and focus on other issues as compared to men. In Liberia’s case, this meant better health care for women and children. By the end of Sirleaf’s presidency, most of the women and children in Liberia had received the HPV vaccine. If we incorporated the perspectives of women (and mothers) into our value systems like Sirleaf did during her presidency, society as a whole could reap the benefits.

I plan to promote emerging model of leadership in my workplace by fostering greater ’micro-visibility,’ a tactic that brings attention to the accomplishments and strengths of women in an effort to help them rise in the ranks at work. As the name implies, these are small but effective moments of praise and can include anything from mentioning their name in an executive team meeting or sharing a successful female-led project.

I am also talking with my team about modeling the "shine theory" — a practice of mutual investment based on the premise that if you don’t shine, I don’t shine. The term was coined by Ann Friedmann and Aminatou Sow to describe a commitment to collaborating with rather than competing against other people—especially other women. Agnes Binagwaho, another speaker at the conference, reiterated the power of this theory for me. A global health fighter and former minister of health in Rwanda, Binagwaho founded a rural medical university in her native country of Rwanda that requires a minimum of 50% female enrollment. The program’s first class was about 70% women and most of them are expected to work in underserved rural communities.

Rediscovering the Power of Inclusion

This TEDWomen experience had just as much to do with my fellow attendees as it did with its impressive speaker lineup. The environment was palpably inclusive, supportive and allowed for open dialogue between people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and age groups. There was a refreshing lack of otherness. In fact, attendees seemed to embrace a collective "we" rather than an individualistic outlook — or a "me" vs. "you" approach. Egos were checked at the door and were substituted with a palpable sense of community where we were all working together to solve the world’s biggest problems.

The TEDWomen Conference humbled me and reminded me that I have so much left to do in the world. It left me inspired and with a greater commitment to act for social good. The bold and brilliant speakers gave me hope, light and the courage to drive change both in the world and at work.

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