Innovation Women Founder Bobbie Carlton On Closing The Gender Gap At Conferences and Events
Combatting the all-male, all-pale, same stale panels that perpetuate throughout the events industry.
Serial business-builder Bobbie Carlton has been championing the visibility of the unseen and unspoken while pushing innovation forward for over a decade.
Bobbie parlayed her background in marketing and public relations to start Carlton PR & Marketing, a boutique agency focused on helping startups and small businesses succeed.
Alongside growing the PR shop, she created a free monthly product launch and networking event series called Innovation Nights to help innovative local companies gain visibility and build their networks.
Her latest venture, Innovation Women, is an online speaker’s bureau for entrepreneurial and technical women and helps event managers gender-balance the speakers at their conferences, trade shows and events.
Cramer recently spoke with Carlton about Innovation Women, capturing her insights, tips, and predictions about gender equity and female public speaking opportunities within the event landscape.
When Innovation Women launched, you had a vision for what it could be and the marketplace need you were solving. How is that vision progressing?
My original vision for Innovation Women was much broader than people might realize. I see public speaking and general visibility as a way to impact career growth, business success, pay equity, gender bias, unconscious bias, even the inequities at the top of the business food chain—C‑level positions and board seats.
When you speak, you connect with potential customers, partners, investors, and new employers. Public speaking gives you super powers. You’re more powerful. You earn more. Your career moves faster. Every woman we get onstage can tap into these super powers.
I certainly didn’t predict the Women’s Marches, the #MeToo movement and the increased focus on gender equity, but the time has been right to focus my attention on ensuring that women get equal opportunities onstage at conferences and events. Meanwhile, Innovation Women, as a self-service online platform, also has the traditional model of speaker’s bureaus in its sights.
We have more than 4,300 members, both event managers and speakers, on the platform and we’ve received more than 1,000 invitations to our speakers. But we find visibility and requests go beyond the platform’s already wide reach as we find that many event managers use our database to find speakers and may reach out directly through a website or other social media.) Our women have spoken at events around the world, from Dubai to Silicon Valley, on an incredibly broad bunch of topics.
What’s most notable about the growth and progress for Innovation Women? What are you most proud of?
While every success story gives me a thrill, I think I like best the stories of new speakers. These are the women who say, “I never thought of myself as a speaker,” or “I never considered public speaking.”
One speaker told us that she had been invited to speak at an event hosted by WGBH. This speaking engagement led to another, and another, and has become an important way for her to connect with partners and new customers. I love that!
Since you launched Innovation Women, what are some of the top trends you are seeing for women in the events industry as a whole?
There are as many different kinds of speaking opportunities just as there are different kinds of speakers. Many people still think of speaking as the lone speaker giving a keynote, but you can speak as part of a panel, participate in a fireside chat, give a workshop or contribute to a roundtable discussion.
It can be at an industry conference or event, a Meetup, a corporate event, a nonprofit gala, or a lunch and learn. Speakers range from expert sources to motivational speakers; from celebrities sharing their secrets to hands-on doers giving a workshop, and many more. There really is something for everyone.
I also think there is an increased understanding of the ways to leverage speaking engagements to make a difference. I know that when I am onstage, I am rarely talking to just the people in the room—I’m talking to everyone in their network.
Including the impact that Innovation Women has been making, from your perspective, what are the biggest driving forces or changes that have catalyzed those trends?
Speaking opportunities themselves are on the rise as more and more marketers choose to throw an event as a way to follow up on digital marketing campaigns. We’re calling it The Speaker’s Paradise.
Did you know there are half a million Meetups held every month? More than 2 million events sold tickets on Eventbrite last year. And there are 92,000 professional organizations in the US alone, many of these which regularly host events and call for speakers.
When connecting with event organizers, what are some of the non-obvious recommendations you give them about elevating the role of women and events?
We often work with organizations who need to increase the presence of women on stage at their events and they seem quite willing to listen and work with us. Many of them have the largest databases of prospective speakers in their industry, but their databases are not set up to search for speakers. By partnering with us, they can more easily find the speakers they need.
For women who are aspiring to take the stage at events, are there go-to recommendations or unexpected advice that you wish more women were utilizing?
Obviously we hope women will join Innovation Women—we make it a lot easier to connect with speaking opportunities. I talk to women about how their social media presence and their business mailing lists can help them get speaking engagements.
We frequently call Innovation Women a “speakers bureau” versus a speaker bureau because we promote everything our speakers do, which helps make them more of a household name. Event managers are looking to “sell seats” at their events—will this speaker help them do this? If you as a speaker can help promote an event, this might get you a second look as a speaker.
During your recent Innovation Women Pop-up, held during INBOUND 2018, you put a spotlight on the critical, under appreciated, underutilized role of men in helping more women speak at events. Can you tell us more about this insight and your corresponding recommendations for both men who are looking to support this movement and women who are aspiring speakers?
While we mostly support other event managers, we do occasionally do pop-up events where we invite our speakers to share their stories (usually via Facebook Live). I have frequent conversations with men about Innovation Women and how it works—including a male allies panel at this year’s INBOUND Pop-up.
One of the biggest obstacles I need to overcome in many men’s minds is that I don’t want to take anything away from them. There are plenty of opportunities for everyone.
In fact, some women’s organizations tout pledges men can take to remove themselves from all-male panels, refusing to participate. I would rather they try to bring in women speakers or get the organizers to do so.
Generally, the men who would actually step down are usually the “aware and woke” ones we would want on stage. One terrific thing I’ve seen was the guy who found himself on an all-male panel and he switched places with a woman in the audience!
As we wrap, let’s talk predictions and vision. Based on the trends in the industry and the successes that you’ve been having with Innovation Women, where do you see the dialog going over the next few years?
We’re already one of the biggest, if not the biggest, self-service databases of entrepreneurial and technical women. We grow bigger every day and every day new speakers and event managers join.
I’d like to see the day when all-male panels are simply not accepted.
To connect with Bobbie Carlton and learn more about Innovation Women:
By Brent Turner
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