With a suitcase full of free goodies, an all-expenses paid trip and table full of pink bagels, 200 women gather to collaborate and throw money at each other's ideas.
The women gathered inside a roped-off area at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. United Airlines staffers, all of them women, handed out bag tags and boarding passes. When a man approached the counter and presented his ID to check in for a flight, he was politely turned away. "Sorry," a United employee said. "This is a special event."
Marie Claire magazine's Power Trip, now in its fourth year, is an American business conference for women. It's also an endurance exercise. Over the course of 36 hours, maybe five of which are allotted for sleep, 200 entrepreneurs, executives and investors fly cross-country to meet, collaborate and throw money at each other's ideas.
This networking sprint is invitation-only and all expenses paid. There's also, naturally, tons of free stuff from corporate sponsors. In October, about a week before takeoff, each attendee received a Tumi carry-on suitcase filled with stuff they might like to have but probably didn't need, including a pair of rugged-soled boots, regenerative nighttime serum and dry shampoo.
By most measures, the women invited to this event had already made it. They'd built and bolstered brands in technology, retail, food, finance, fashion and media. They had staffs to oversee, orders to fulfill, emails to send, calls to make, meetings to take, not to mention personal lives. And before they got to the airport, they didn't know who would be joining them.
So why go?
Of legacy and leg room
In its short lifetime, the Power Trip has developed an outsize reputation among businesswomen of a certain ilk. That's because its disrupters-on-a-plane premise seems to actually work. After attending in 2016, Moj Mahdara, the CEO of Beautycon, gained a strategic investor and started working with Hillary Clinton. She described the Power Trip as a way for women to share in "the legacy of information" passed down through generations of men.
"Unlike my father's father's father, who ran something, my grandmother didn't run anything, my mum didn't run anything," Mahdara said in a phone interview. "Things like the Power Trip provide a space for us."
That space is both figurative and literal. "For me, it's about the networking opportunities, meeting more founders and courageous souls in business," said Bertha González Nieves, the CEO of Casa Dragones, a tequila company. She was leaning against a table in the United Airlines lounge, where a preflight breakfast of pink bagels and egg-white frittata was being served.
Last year, González Nieves went to a women's empowerment conference hosted by another magazine which cost several thousand dollars to attend (one of her investors encouraged her to go and paid for her ticket). "It was a group of women that had been going for years. They all knew each other, and it was an older generation," she said, adding: "This seems more energetic."
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The women on this year's Power Trip ranged in age from 28 to 53. In line at the espresso machine, they smiled politely and made small talk until the machine flashed an error message. Around 8am, Marie Claire's editor-in-chief, Anne Fulenwider, jumped on a chair to inform the group that she hates conferences and that this one would be different.
"For the next 36 hours," she said, "you have no control."
But first, self-care
On the plane, first class had been turned into a makeshift spa: facials in Row 1, makeup touch-ups in Row 2, foot massages in Row 3. "Are you doing this?" asked Deon Hawkins, the social media manager of the cannabis company Cannaclusive, who'd just had a pair of sluglike hydration patches stuck under her eyes. "Because you should totally do this. I don't know what it is, but it's crazy."
Apart from takeoff, landing and 10 minutes of mild turbulence, passengers got up, swapped seats, leaned over headrests and congregated in the aisles as the crew navigated around them, doling out Champagne, chicken and waffles and "superfood" oatmeal.
"The rules are relaxed because it's not a regular commercial flight, and we want the ladies to feel relaxed," said Jacqueline Briggs, a flight attendant who also worked last year's Power Trip. "You don't want to stop them from enjoying and interacting. It's part of the experience."
Toward the back of the plane, a row was reserved for reiki treatments. (I felt energised after mine, possibly because I fell asleep in the middle.) Another had become a "power pumping" station. At least one new mum, Broadway producer and angel investor Randi Zuckerberg, didn't see the need.
"If there's one flight where you can just pump and dump and no one cares, it's this one," said Zuckerberg, whose brother is the CEO of Facebook. "Usually on an airplane, I'm in the corner with 14 blankets on, like 'Please make me invisible.'"
United began sponsoring the Power Trip two years ago. "It was a no-brainer," said Jill Kaplan, the airline's president of operations for New York and New Jersey. She declined to disclose financial details but said that the powers that be didn't need to be convinced. "How do we not support an extraordinary group of women who are doing remarkable things?"
It also may have been a good PR move. In 2017, United's image took a hit when an employee barred two teenage girls from boarding because they were wearing leggings and, just a few weeks later, another dragged a man off an overbooked flight. But everyone has their reasons for taking part.
The new magazine economy
The Power Trip began as a way for Marie Claire — a publication I've written for twice — to "bring the pages of our magazine to life" for its readers, Fulenwider said, while respecting the schedules of modern working women.
"When we started this, I had a 5- and 7-year-old, and it was a big deal to us that we don't waste anyone's time," Fulenwider continued. "A lot of conferences are fabulous, but they're over three days, no one stays the whole time, there's a more transient quality. We want a short, concentrated dose. Everyone's involved. Nothing's optional. Everyone has to do everything."
That's more or less true. Seventy-five San Franciscans and four of the conference's speakers — actresses Daisy Ridley, Busy Philipps, Awkwafina and Regina King — were absent for the first leg of the trip. ("They asked, 'Do you want to fly to New York and then fly from New York to San Francisco?'" said Philipps, who lives in Los Angeles. "I was like, 'Absolutely not, no. That's never happening.'")
Each year, the celebrity speakers are friends of the magazine — former cover stars and interview subjects — and are not paid for their participation. But they're not the main event. "We keep the panels to a minimum," Fulenwider said. "The model of listening to the great wise ones on stage is so old. We wanted to blow that up. We know the magic comes from the times in between."
The trip also helps magazine advertisers connect with the demographics they're trying to reach. Throughout the flight, the editor-in-chief and her associates got on the in-flight PA system to announce giveaways including a US$5000 Airbnb gift certificate, two first-class United tickets to anywhere and 200 hybrid laptop/tablets from Dell that retail for US$1500 apiece. (They were each encased in a sleek black backpack and passed down the aisles like so many bags of pretzels.)
Fashion designer Lela Rose gave away two tickets to her next New York Fashion Week show and US$2500 worth of Lela Rose merchandise that she'll personally help the winner select. "It's just a way to give back, because what a unique opportunity to get to be on a trip like this," Rose said. "I'm not like, 'Let's get a whole new customer base.'" Two hours into the flight, she had already met a woman who made the endeavour worth her while.
"Sarah from Blueland," Rose said, referring to Sarah Paiji Yoo, the founder of a company that makes sustainable home cleaning products. "We're trying to go more into sustainability, and even though her business has nothing to do with fashion, I think there's a way to take what she's learned, what she's done R&D on, and apply it to our business."
Cognisant of sustainability's trendiness in business and beyond, United purchased enough carbon offsets to make the flight carbon negative, Kaplan said. (The flight was not full — no one was assigned a middle seat — but the airline purchased carbon offsets for every seat on the plane.)
"It's great to know," said Yoo. "I know there's a lot out there about why you shouldn't fly, but it's hard when you're running a business. There's only one way to get to LA or SF."
"Unless you go on horseback and take five weeks off," said Miki Agrawal, a founder of Thinx, the period-panties company, and Tushy, which makes attachable bidets.
No sleep till sisterhood
By the time the plane touched down at SFO, voices had gone hoarse and inboxes had filled. A bus ride from the tarmac to a hotel in downtown San Francisco offered the women a moment to check in with themselves before they convened with the Power Trip's San Francisco contingent for two panel discussions, a cocktail hour, a dinner and a "sweet nightcap" that promised an "Insta-worthy cake cutting and sprinkle explosion."
"You'll have 15 minutes for a quick refresh once we get to the hotel," said a staffer at the front of my bus. Powering through seemed to be the unspoken mantra — Fulenwider said that sleep deprivation makes people more emotionally vulnerable and apt to open up. Also helpful: free food and booze.
On the sun-drenched rooftop of the hotel, the site of an astrological personality test that the women were about to undergo, cups of hummus and crudités and vegan cactus "ceviche" got washed down with mimosas, rosé and sauvignon blanc. "It's like we're at a wedding," said the woman in front of me. "Long line for the bar — minus all the dudes, of course."
Liz Tran, an astrologer and executive coach who previously worked at a venture capital firm, instructed everyone to break into smaller groups according to astrological sign. "You may go to your group and realise that it has way more people or way less people than some of the others," she said. "I promise you, there is no statistical correlation between being a great leader and what your sun sign is."
I hit it off with a fellow Aquarius to the degree that we missed most of our group's guided discussion about whether or not we identified as a "futuristic rebel." By this point, there was a man behind the bar and a male Marie Claire staffer on the roof, but their presence didn't appear to affect the energy. A photographer stripped off her shirt and shot photos in a sports bra and track pants. A Bank of America executive likened the day to being on one of Oprah's "favourite things" episodes or The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
"If you had a group of men in business in different fields, it would be nothing like this," Rose, the fashion designer, said. "They would not be sharing or connecting, you wouldn't have this spirit, this fun. They would be sizing each other up."
On a bus ride to the headquarters of Lucasfilm, where some of the panels would take place, conversation turned to boarding schools, splitting custody and biking in New York City.
There was hushed silence for panels held in an auditorium, and more socialising once everyone adjourned for cocktails. One attendee excused herself citing period pain. Another claimed other obligations. ("Awkwafina left?" the founder of a skin care line said, dismayed. "I thought she was going to hang with us!") Topics that some might call NSFW flowed: the pressure to procreate, dealing with jealous co-workers, Instagram interlopers and the isolation of going out on your own.
"Being a founder can be really lonely," said Lisa Barnett, a founder of the baby food company Little Spoon. "This is a rare opportunity to be around other women who get what I'm going through. Not many people get it."
More drinks, more food, more gifts (a personalised charm bracelet, cooling pyjamas, small-batch chocolate); the promised sprinkle explosion, filmed and summarily shared. The buses arrived back at the hotel around midnight.
"This has been a breath of fresh air," said González Nieves, who had organised an impromptu Casa Dragones nightcap at the rooftop bar. "It was less about the content and more about the people."
Six hours later, as the sun rose over San Francisco, some women cried while doing a mindfulness-tinged cardio dance workout in the middle of a baseball stadium. Smiles that had been polite the day before now seemed more sincere. There was a sober, morning-after taking stock of the fact that the person you'd spoken to openly about your goals and dreams was a stranger just 24 hours ago. Other panel discussions touched on data privacy, normalising parenting at startups and the public's unanimous love for Regina King. ("I'm sure there is someone out there that does not mirror that sentiment," the actress said during her discussion with Philipps, "but I think that I create an energy that they won't let me know.")
Some women half-listened while tapping out messages on their phones and laptops, but none were called out for taking care of business. Not once did I hear any of the well-meaning but infantilising terms sometimes used to describe businesswomen: "girlboss," "femtrepreneur," "she-e-o." Everyone in the room had an endgame, but they also seemed to be looking out for each other.
"Networking has such a negative connotation," Philipps said offstage. "To me, networking is just like, balding white men who sell insurance in a bad hotel somewhere. But the truth is that a sense of community is vital to accelerating your goals. It is imperative that we talk to one another, that we compare notes, stories and dealings with people, so that we can make sure that everyone is getting paid what they're worth. That is how you rise."
An hour later, they were back in the air.
Written by: Sheila Marikar
Photographs by: Calla Kessler
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES