Three Days at TEDWomen

Sometime this past summer, I got an email from my friend, Meggie Palmer (Founder of PepTalkHer--on a mission to close the gender pay gap!), letting me know that “the best conference” was taking place in December and I should check it out. It was information about a three-day TED event focused on women and women’s issues. It was not cheap, and I had to apply to attend. But envisioning sharing space with a group of women . . . in Palm Springs . . . sounded pretty appealing, so I did it.

What followed was 72 blissful hours spent wandering among palm trees, feeling sunshine on my arms and legs, sitting in a theatre listening to women and men speak on issues new and old, and having conversations with total strangers that were surprisingly easy. I felt and feel incredibly grateful that I was able to have this experience and wanted to share some of my favorite moments with all of you.

Afghan School for Girls (in Rwanda). Shabana Basij-Rasikh opened the conference and gave perhaps the most moving presentation of the event. She is the cofounder and president of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA), the country’s first and only girls’ boarding school. She described what it was like when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and, eventually, Kabul, where the school was located, including the choice to destroy all the girls’ school records. But they had been planning for this day. As she was speaking to us, all the girls had been relocated to Rwanda and classes had resumed. I’m getting choked up now just typing this. Information about SOLA and how you can support them can be found here and her complete talk is here.

100 Tampons. Now, that’s something you don’t read every day. Do you need more laughter in your life at the moment? If you don’t, well, you’re winning. But if you’re like the rest of us and sufficient laughter has been lacking these past two years, please check out this video of Marcia Belsky performing a song that she also performed live at TEDWomen (her TED performance is not yet available online). Sitting with a group of strangers in a dark room listening to this song made me laugh uncontrollably, which was one of the highlights of the trip for me. It’s a hilarious and stark reminder of how little women and men really know about each other. Also good for anyone who’s into astronauts. 

Africa for the Win. Which country in the world has the highest number of female entrepreneurs? Uganda. 39.6% of people who start businesses in Uganda are women. The second and third countries are Botswana and Ghana. Following a difficult birth, Temie Giwa-Tubosun realized there was a lack of infrastructure in Nigeria to support matching supply and demand for blood. So she created a business to fix it: LifeBank. But when she went to raise capital she was told: “I just can’t see you building something that scales.” Puke. Only 6% of venture funding for African companies goes to female founders (note this rate is higher than in the U.S., despite how progressive and egalitarian we like to think we are). Undeterred, she went on to raise capital and build out her company, which has saved thousands of lives since it launched just five years ago. Those are thousands of human beings who might not be alive today because Temie did not look like a founder who could scale. (Her talk is unfortunately not yet up on TED’s website).

Women in Construction. This may seem a little basic for a TED talk, but it was anything but. Only 4% of construction workers are female. Four percent. That’s almost as low as the venture funding going to women-led companies (wink, nod). Emily Pilloton-Lam (who gave her talk while using heavy machinery to build a toolbox that was later auctioned off), expressed her desire for women “to play an equal and substantive role in the making of our physical world.” She showed a picture of her construction crew, which was a photo of a group of women. I could feel the cognitive dissonance erupt in my brain--a sign to me that she is creating real change. Ms. Pilloton-Lam runs Girls Garage, a nonprofit design and building program for girls and gender-expansive youth. You can learn (and give) here. (Her talk/construction performance is unfortunately not yet up on TED’s website).

That is just four of the forty talks we got to ingest over those three days. While I had my favorites, I learned something new from every single talk. I also learned that attending a conference, even one as amazing as this, is not the same as being on vacation. There is no such thing as a multitasking vacation. That brings my vacation total for 2021 back to a dismal zero, something I plan to remedy in two short weeks. I hope you all are doing the same. We all have big, big plans for 2022, so rest up! 

--Jessie Gabriel