The website said:

“The 2019 MAKERS Conference is a global women’s leadership event that brings together the most powerful names in business, entertainment, tech, and finance to explore ways to accelerate the movement with compelling videos, provocative conversations, and onstage pledges for change.”

I read this as I was preparing to head to the MAKERS Conference after having been selected to participate as part of our delegation, led by SVP of Cognizant Interactive Donna Tuths, who sits on the board of MAKERS.

It was an honor to be selected by my colleagues, but I didn’t really know what it meant. I also couldn’t figure out why people who’d attended sessions in previous years seemed so inexplicably excited. (I was chosen as one of the very few male attendees, but more on that later.)

Was this a feminist Burning Woman but held at a posh California resort (less dust, decent food)? That sounded cool, but it turned out to be even better, and nothing like I expected.

For years now, we’ve heard about how grim things seem. We hear daily that the world is lurching toward some kind of AI-charged dystopia with no middle class, little hope for future generations and an endless grind of ethnic, racial, gender and economic conflict.

The event organizers and speakers didn’t flinch from the problems we face, but by aggressively casting a wide net across a myriad of issues and opportunities, they orchestrated a powerful antidote to the rising anxiety we, the hyper-connected class, are stewed in daily.

Facing the Truth Head-On

The “All of Us” MAKERS narrative springs from perhaps the wellspring of the feminist movement – the iconic Gloria Steinem – and bridges to the essential themes of today and tomorrow.

A firehose of snappy TED-like presentation topics included insights and provocations related to wealth empowerment, the arts, sports, entrepreneurship, political change, hiring and promotion bias, the power of artificial intelligence to either lessen or worsen gender discrimination, theology, parenting, the demon specter of sexual violence, criminal justice for women, the social impact of advertising and brand messages and much more.

Impressive presenters – current and future stars and leaders of causes both grand and intimate – illuminated the harsh truth about the long fight ahead for full equality. Each followed with bold prescriptions, commitments and a side dish of hope for solving the challenges facing women (and other humans) in spite of hard-won progress since the time of the suffragettes.

To do the MAKERS presenters and organizers justice would take hours, but you can (and please do) find some of the excellent content online.

Five Actions We Can All Take Now

Of course, no single event is going to have all the answers, but our collective goal must be to act. Here are five themes I took away that I hope are helpful and applicable to our personal and professional lives.

  • Drop your false nostalgia anchor. Along the path of history, we often hold tight for too long to old ideas and practices that naturally became outdated as we collectively get better and smarter. Slavery used to be perfectly “legal.” Disagreements between states led to people whacking away at each other with swords in fields. Doctors didn’t wash their hands because they didn’t see a reason to. Car companies argued against seat belt use. Smoking was seen as healthy. All wrong. Personal, organizational and social change is going to hurt a bit, and that’s OK. Nobody gets fit lounging on the couch. Nobody gets smart without wrestling with challenging content. Inclusion doesn’t happen without new choices and new behaviors. Event speakers reminded us many times that we’re at a unique point in history, and the time is now to cut the mooring lines to a past when so many have been disenfranchised. Without full inclusion, we’re not clinging to something good; we’re hanging onto an anchor from the past.
  • See your business as either inclusive or irrelevant. We don’t need any more diagnostic studies; the data is clear. Companies that are more inclusive perform better. It’s simply time to act with intent. In the digital economy, the best ideas will win, so companies that marginalize great ideas from half their employees are deliberately choosing a going-out-of-business strategy. Smart leaders are working to ensure that culture, hiring, promotion and compensation processes don’t hard-code systemic sexism. However, we learned that at the glacial pace we’re changing, it will take 202 years until pay parity is achieved. Boardroom and C-suite occupants who don’t want to be in the news for labor action, lawsuits and declining valuation need to hit the gas because we’re moving too slowly. Enough success stories exist to prove that the path ahead is clear and achievable.
  • Treat new technology like fire. Just as fire, as an ancient technology, could both warm and harm, so too can AI, our new machine. Without full consideration of unintended consequences, machines behave badly. They can amplify racism and sexism in hiring, image recognition and search results, and they can be used to weaponize personal data and content distribution. On the other hand, the event featured a growing number of woman-run or funded companies that are encoding our better angels. Again, this is happening today, and it’s working: lowering hiring bias, matching personalities and skills to more appropriate jobs and more. AI can be a core element of more inclusive businesses and organizations, but it won’t happen without careful tending and keeping humans in the loop.
  • Have a little faith (we’re in good hands.) Delegates got to see the connections between pioneer equality leaders like Gloria Steinem and Dusty Roads and the leaders of tomorrow. It was clear that we – all of us – have a past, and we have a future. The list of standout MAKERS women – artists, investors, executives, non-profit founders, academics, scientists and more – was long, but to see Abby Wambach move from her role as one of the greatest athletes in history to become a compelling and unifying voice for inclusion was thrilling.
  • Find empathy (the most human skill). The theme of the event was “All of Us,” a double entendre meaning all women as a collective tribe, but also all aspects of each of us. Humans are complex beasts with many facets – daughter, father, worker, gay, son, mother, nearly countless “isms,” colors, ethnicities and more. We could continue slicing ourselves into even finer slivers, but doing so would risk misplacing the truth that we’re all, already, whole. Since nobody can be all things – and we only get one first-person point of view – the core new behavior to nurture is an openness to the experiences and perspectives of others. This isn’t just some kindergarten platitude or lazy academic bromide. It’s hard work – for me anyway, and maybe for you – to try to see the world from the perspective of a little person, a trans women, an African American woman, a banker, a math genius, a felon and all the other things we may not be. But without really trying, dialog, accountability and even grace and forgiveness could well remain like soap bubbles – fragile, impermanent and just out of reach.  

A Peek into a Promising Future

I was one of maybe 5% of delegates who identified as male. As a white, straight, middle-aged, educated male (the straight flush of privilege), in our tech world I’m almost never a minority, but here, I was an anomaly.

People noticed. While standing in the line for coffee, I got asked, “So what does it feel like to be one of the few guys here?”

Honestly, the word that came to mind was grateful, like I’d been invited into a space as a guest, and where I was allowed to get a glimpse of the future. (It was also the only time in my professional life that I wished my two teen/tween daughters could be in the room listening to the most impressive people.)

The event was a small peek into a possible reality that will be fierce and powerful and creative, with a full chorus of voices that haven’t been heard enough, and badass women who will be more in charge than ever before.

Like all good things, this future won’t come easily. It’ll be messy, and things will get broken along the way, and people will be uncomfortable, and we have a lot to learn. (Like, let’s just say we’re still figuring out social protocols for gender-neutral bathrooms …).

But we will!

To bet against this, to bet against a world that the MAKERS women and comrades are imagining and building, will land us on the wrong side of history, commerce, conscience. Here’s to the journey!

(Banner photo courtesy of MAKERS.)

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Paul Roehrig

Paul Roehrig

Paul is a Co-founder and Head of Strategy for Cognizant Digital Business. He is the Founder and former Global Managing Director of... Read more