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Key Takeaways from the 2017 Forbes Women Summit in New York

Chitra Anand is at the forefront of an important new movement in the workplace: intrapreneurship. Intrapreneurs are the people within your organization who possess an entrepreneurial spirit — driving innovation, creative thinking, and new ideas. The former head of PR for Microsoft Canada, Anand has been an intrapreneur for her entire career. Her engaging talks reveal how to foster that spirit, and how to stay on the cutting edge of market trends, technology, and consumer behaviour. Here, Chitra shares key takeaways from the recent Forbes Women Summit in New York:

For the past five years, Forbes has hosted an invitation-only conference in New York, drawing women from diverse backgrounds and industries. About 300 women gathered recently for the 2017 summit to share ideas as catalysts for drive meaningful change.

The theme of the conference, #redefinepower, was about changing the way you think about things, says Moira Forbes, president of the Women Summit. It is a shift from power and authority to passion and impact. It is about leaders connecting with new groups of stakeholders and forming unexpected alliances. It is about bringing together the best minds and taking non-traditional approaches to solve societal problems.

This conference has attracted the likes of Jessica Alba, actor and founder of Honest Company; chef and author Ina Garten (a.k.a. the Barefoot Contessa); Jennifer Hyman, CEO and founder of Rent the Runway; Ivanka Trump; and Patty Jenkins, film director and screenwriter best known for her current film, Wonder Woman.

Here are my key takeaways from this year’s conference:

1.Judge Judy Sheindlin, known for her direct, pointed and tough demeanour on her TV show, shared the highs and lows of her career. The mother of five children said it is never too late to reinvent yourself. Her show did not come to fruition until she was 52 years old. “Find what you love to do, what makes you rare and special, that gives you confidence, and create a career from it.”

I have found in my career that there is great power when you decide to reinvent yourself in your professional life. Many of us don’t even think to do this, or even if the signs present themselves, we don’t embrace them. I decided to do this after spending 10 years at Telus. I was itching for change; I wanted to be out of my comfort zone; I was thirsty for knowledge. I wanted a rebirth and knew it was time.

So I went on a journey of self-discovery. This resulted in PhD work, becoming a thought leader in the space of intrapreneurship, and tapping into my love for storytelling while joining Microsoft. Take the plunge, be fearless, become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

2. Wonder Woman had grossed more than $425-million (U.S.) on a budget of $149-million at the time of the conference, scoring the best box-office debut for a female director ever. Patty Jenkins spoke about the lack of female directors in Hollywood. The list of top-grossing movies indicates how under-represented women are at the top; very few women find big box-office success. She hopes to pave a way forward. On being a woman, she said: “Don’t think about being a woman, put it out of your mind, just plow forward.”

In my previous article for The Globe and Mail, I wrote “there’s no better time to be a woman.” I really do believe this. I think at times we can add complexity to situations when we get too caught up on focusing on barriers.

The focus should be on the work that we are doing. Funnel all of your energy and passion into it. There are going to be tough, challenging times that are unfair, but we as women must not be derailed; this struggle is what will define you. As a female visibile minority in tech, it has defined me.

3. Melanie Whelan, SoulCycle CEO, spoke about the importance of culture and people. SoulCycle started with seven spinning studios in New York, grew to 80 studios in more than 15 cities, and managed to create a movement in boutique fitness. Ms. Whelan spoke about the importance of hiring people for their energy and passion; the rest is all training. “Because we are in the business of creating experiences, we need to ensure that our people are aligned on our values and culture.” She spoke about how SoulCycle taps into what motivates people. They stay connected to their employees to ensure that the corporate culture radiates throughout.
As an avid spinner, I love SoulCycle. Any time I am in NYC, I book my classes for the week. There is an energy, an enthusiasm, an authentic passion in every experience that you sense as soon as you walk in the door.

In my research around intrapreneurship, one of the core emerging themes is the importance of creating thriving cultures in which people can do their best work. I refer to the garden analogy. To cultivate an environment where plants – people – can flourish, the garden needs good soil, sunlight, water – just as a business needs leadership, motivation, coaching, training. I have seen even the most talented people wither away in poor environments. Culture is key.

4. Bozoma Saint John is the new chief brand officer for Uber. This was Ms. Saint John’s first public appearance since becoming an Uber executive. She expressed that she is not one to shy away from risk and that “running into the fire” is what can define you. Challenges are where the real opportunities are.
I have always been drawn to jobs where there are messes. I have seen myself as a fixer. The more complex the problem, the better; the messier, the better. As an intrapreneur, this is what we do, we drive transformational change. I have always believed that within chaos lies innovation. Innovation happens when situations are in turmoil because you need to solve the problems at hand. Embrace the challenges of a mess; it could be a new-found superpower.

5. Gwynne Shotwell, CEO of SpaceX, the seventh employee at the company, said that people may have thought she was crazy when she took the reins of a company that wanted to take people to Mars. She says that if you take the safer path, you will never grow.

I have always found this to be true. When you take a risk, breakthrough innovation happens. I mean, this is coming from someone whose leader is trying to colonize Mars. Who would have thought that NASA would commission SpaceX to help build rocket ships?

The important thing here is to always hold on to a “what if” mindset.

Chitra Anand/Globe and Mail/June, 2017