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Last month, I participated and attended the Wo-Men Automotive Summit (WAS) virtually. This story is a reflection of my journey getting there, experiencing the conference digitally and a demonstration of the actions it inspires me to take.
I had so many apprehensions about the conference. Like everything else, and likely as for everyone else, they started back in March when it hit me: I would be grounded for a while. A deadly virus was viciously attacking the world’s breath. Everyone was changing plans and WAS would be no exception. My plans to return to Germany in June 2020 to host the entire day-long conference were devastatingly falling apart.
I had sought after my first hosting gig boldly. Nine months prior, June 2019 in Stuttgart, I had connected with Stephanie May after attending the first Women Automotive Conference, her creation. Stage-side after the event wrapped, I had approached her to reaffirm my commitment to write an article about the event. After an awesome energy exchange between the two of us, she asked if she would see me next year. “Absolutely,” I had confidently answered, “and I’d like to be on stage.” The last part, I had blurted out in a moment of extreme fearlessness.
After joining the Worldwide Partnerships team in Istanbul to try out my hosting capabilities at the World Automotive Conference in October 2019, I had landed the gig for the next WAS. Atta girl. I was making my dreams happen.
Until I wasn’t anymore. At first, the event would still take place in person, but it would be delayed to November 24. With the global health crisis worsening, international borders closing, and a dramatic election coming up at home, I knew crossing the Atlantic wouldn’t be on my agenda for the rest of the year. “Let’s see…” I responded when conference organizers reaffirmed my commitment to hosting the event. Apprehension.
Later in the summer, I welcomed the organizing team’s decision to go all digital with a sigh of relief. At least I wouldn’t miss out on the content I had enjoyed so much as an attendee the year before. In a preparatory discussion with event Program Manager Ersin Kara, the already obvious smacked me in the face: the challenges of a 6 hour time difference with my favorite time zone, Central European Time, would make it impossible for me to honor my hosting duties. “But I’ll still do the panel.”
Side note: I love hosting panels. I am a hard YES to that invitation. I get a tremendous amount of joy using my skills to orchestrate the telling of other people’s stories in a way that brings them to the audience energetically while showcasing each individual panelist. I’ve rehearsed and prepared this craft and I knew I could do well, online, across cultures and time zones. I would figure out how to be “backstage” at 10AM CET, 4AM local. I would be ready.
I was in the presence of some powerhouse women: Christiane Feder-Andres of Capgemini Germany, Helen Melling of McLaren Automotive and Sylvia Neubauer of BMW Group. Each of them glass-ceiling busters and remarkably accomplished professionals. Bosses. I was so curious to hear and learn from their experiences, I literally could have asked them questions for days. Between a chemistry meeting and the actual panel, the discussions we had were worth every. single. second. of planning for and getting up at 2:30AM.
Ironically, what resonated with me most had little to do with neither women, and not much with automotive. It was a common thread that pulled through each of the women’s message that I paraphrase in my own words: do you. Be the best version of yourself. Don’t worry about what “they” are going to think/say/do. That’s on them and it’s not for you. Leave it. Rather, do great work and bet on the best investment you can make: yourself. I’m all in. In fact, this is me, doing me.
Commitment & Content
I am also in awe of their commitment to this topic and their responsibilities as role models in the industry. Just imagine these women’s diaries for a minute… They are busy running departments at their respective companies – and I imagine also running a little or a lot of everything in their private lives. Likely booked to. the. minute. Yet they made the time to thoughtfully prepare for and attend this event. All in the name of not only women, but women in automotive, an inviting global community. In fact, all 335 of us who attended the conference and dozens who curated it for us deeply committed to bringing us together.
This commitment lead to really good, high quality content, which was to be expected, given the caliber of speakers. I heard fresh spins on old topics, differing points-of-view and a lot of food for thought. While the Corona virus obviously came up, I was delighted that it wasn’t front and center in any of the talks: our work as women in automotive and mobility transcends the current global health crisis. We need more of us to be included in the dialogues to lead to better, more diverse solutions and innovations. Especially now.
Dr. Uta Holzenkamp of BASF humbly used her opening keynote to showcase a handful of women playing a key role in radically transforming the ginormous chemical company’s sustainability agenda. She called for women’s different thinking as necessary for the impact we must create, especially at a moment where our industry is in the midst of redefining itself.
Ruth Heuss showcased some really important industry trends through the lens of gender diversity with the poise and flawlessness I automatically associate with being an accomplished McKinsey career consultant. She then shared some of the internal initiatives going on at the prestigious consultancy.
Dr. Sylvie Römer of Horváth & Partners reminded me that there are really no boundaries for women in business.
It was Clare Jones, Chief Commercial Officer of what3words that, in my humble opinion, gave the most compelling presentation. I’ve followed Clare, w3w’s journey (you can find me at ///look.cone.fleet these days) and have seen her on stage giving a version of this presentation before. But this time, it was different: perhaps something about the intimacy of seeing her in her home in front of that quintessential bookcase, of being so “close” to her. Her talk is about our human need to know where we are, to trust we are in the right place, as a feeling that unites the world. w3w’s company ethos is based on delivering this feeling as the intent behind its digital product, an innovative way to solve for this pain point, one that is literally as old as humankind. She was brilliant. And I am not just using the word brilliant as a generic word of support; I mean it as Oxford defines it: “exceptionally clever and talented”. She blew my mind with how she unpacked the story in a way that made everyone “get it”, by connecting us to our emotional selves in an extremely relatable and personal way. Clare, beyond inspiring all these women, you make me elevate my storytelling game: thank you! Watch her 25 minutes talk here.
The rest of the content that has been approved for public distribution is here.
Digital and Intimate
This conference was obviously not the first one I attended digitally in 2020. But it was the best because it brought intimacy to participants via enabling connections that would not have been possible, well, in real life. At happy hour the evening before the conference, I had the opportunity to meet and chat with women, in their homes, in 5 different countries (hello ladies!). And the connections continued during breaks from programming the following day. I found it remarkable that more than 1500 times, we opted to hit the networking button and be randomly paired with the next person who was also interested in participating in this unofficial social contract: the digital meet and greet. For those few moments, it was as if all woman-on-woman biases often prevalent in the physical world were completely lifted as we were all eager to meet each other. 754 meetings of such occurred. In this case, digital evened the playing field.
A massive shout out goes out to digital host Dave Nelissen, who seamlessly navigated from presentation to presentation showing his facilitation prowess and experience whilst being appropriately entertaining, keeping track of the chat, attentively listening to and then interviewing each presenter and making it all look so easy. I watched him all day and picked up a few tricks for my bag. It was his genuine encouragement that enabled a foundation for engagement that became a 2-way connection to the audience throughout the duration of the day.
Inspiration and Action
The social buzz around #womenautosummit was impressive that day: attendees shared their stories as the day unfolded. I saw so many messages of women being inspired by our words. At some point during the day, I saw someone tag me and my co-panelists in a selfie with us in the background.
In that moment, I realized that all of the prep, the rehearsals, the collection of experiences that got us here, the crafting and curating, the fuck ups and the victories are all worth it: there is a tsunami of women on the heels of today’s leaders and if my role is to inspire only one of them to take an action that elevates herself, then here I am.
Because I have said it before: “Inspiration is nice, but it’s the actions it inspires that spark the change we seek.”
Speaking of actions, I am going to continue to let my voice out. Both here on The Voices Collection in writing, as I often do, and in my professional life by making it a priority to have even more conversations like those of November 24th. Because change, and eventually progress starts with a thought that is heard through a voice. Let it by my voice. Let it be your voice.
I commit to more collaboration, because we are stronger together than alone. The best surprise of the day was that the conference included another attendee from the Washington, DC area. Indeed, there was another crazy person across the Atlantic and close by getting up before dawn to attend this event. I was astonished when Carmen Niethammer reached out to me to introduce herself. And I was even more delighted when connected one-on-one a couple of weeks after the event to exchange ideas, learn from each other and commit to brainstorming on more collaboration opportunities.
I will definitely see you all again next year, but let’s not wait until then.
What will you do with all that inspiration, ladies?