Conversations from Aspen Ideas Fest

I love that living in Aspen allows me to attend Ideas Fest sessions that I wouldn’t normally get the pleasure of joining (see past recaps here and here). This year, I attended two distinct but related panels, so I will discuss them together. The details:

Entrepreneurship 2012 with Michael Lopp, Kevin Delaney, Joe Muscat, Daniel Epstein, and Paul Sciarra (filling in for Arianna Huffington)

Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change around the World with Alyse Nelson, Laura Alonso, Kah Walla, and Amira Yahyaoui

OK, so first let’s point out the obvious, which I already tweeted about: the entrepreneurship panel is all men. The women’s leadership panel is all women.

This is a problem. This is the problem.

The festival seemed to excuse this on the entrepreneurial panel because Arianna Huffington was supposed to be on the entrepreneurship panel, but there is absolutely no excuse for not replacing her with a woman: she is not the only big-name woman entrepreneur in the world. To have a panel in this economic climate that largely discussed how to encourage young people to become entrepreneurs, it’s critical that those young people understand that entrepreneurs can be of both sexes. Currently, the world of entrepreneurship is dominated by men, and that is precisely the reason for a conversation-encouraging organization like the Aspen Ideas Fest to include women.

To be fair, the panel itself was excellent: great conversation, varied viewpoints and ages, and lots of great insight for budding entrepreneurs (like me—though it’s worth noting that I’m female). When asked about challenges, the veteran entrepreneurs gave advice on perseverance, execution (literally, “you need someone who can cross the t’s and dot the i’s”), and stubbornness. But Paul Sciarra of Pinterest summed up best a point I’ve heard before but am also reiterating constantly to myself and others: “Despite what you’ve heard, Pinterest is a four-year overnight success.” When asked how he stayed motivated, he replied, “An unwillingness to fail. You’ve told all your friends that you’re doing this … and I didn’t want to face them at the end of the day.”

Entrepreneurship may be marked by that stubbornness, but the panel members spoke a lot about the value of failure to entrepreneurship. They argue that the culture of entrepreneurship as a whole, particularly found in Silicon Valley, makes it systemically okay to fail, which is critical for entrepreneurial success.

The Vital Voices panel was excellent as well, and the women who spoke were eloquent, passionate, and inspiring. Working backwards, 27-year-old activist Amira Yahyaoui of Tunisia wrapped up her comments by saying, “We need man feminists. We have to stop thinking we are separate. We cannot do it by ourselves. Men have to act now.” And that’s exactly why the lack of men on the panel IS an issue. Women in leadership is not a women’s issue.

Then again, there were less than 10 men in attendance. So it’s not just a planning fail, it’s an attendee interest fail (which you could attribute to the planning as well, but we’ll stay away from that).

That said, the discussion was interesting and focused on two overarching themes: first, that “the time for talking is over, the time for doing is now;” and second, that “women are facilitators” as leaders. Argentine Congresswoman Laura: “All the women are facilitators … women sitting at the table feel the way the affected people feel or live, we don’t think about interest groups or corporations, that’s the second part … Business can always be fixed. You can adapt business. What we see is a different face on the people that are affected by the law.”

2011 Cameroon Presidential Candidate Kah Walla: “But if it is by accident of history or how we constructed societies, women have been in charge of taking care of human beings. So when we come to power, that is who we want to be when we come to power … The main purpose when I’m sitting here is, how much space can I create for these other people? The societies we’ve built that exclude some of us don’t work for any of us! That’s the difference.”

… in the end, I’m thrilled by the quality of the discussion at the panels and treatment within them of equality of the sexes. The makeup of the panels, unfortunately, demonstrates the deep inequality that still exists, that sections issues off into gender boxes instead of opening up discussions to all.

Also: I’m super-bummed I missed out on Anne-Marie Slaughter and Katie Couric talking over Slaughter’s controversial Atlantic cover story “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” that rocked the world last week. But AIF did a great job posting video coverage and lots of reactions here.

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