The PPAI Women’s Leadership Conference Direct-2-You wrapped up late Wednesday afternoon after three days of virtual educational programming and events, optional fitness programs each morning, 12 education sessions, three afternoons of roundtable discussions, an evening awards program with networking and what was probably the industry’s first virtual dine-around using Zoom to bring small groups of attendees together for casual conversation.

Despite being held virtually for the first time in its 16-year history, WLC succeeded again this year, bringing 127 attendees together and helping to create lasting connections.

Following three days of inspiring and information-packed sessions, Kelli Denes, MAS, co-chair of the WLC workgroup, greeted attendees to close the program on Wednesday afternoon. “I’m so excited that everyone is still here at 3:35 on the third day,” she said. “Thank you for showing up and for making this event feel so special—even in this virtual environment. I think it’s really incredible that we’ve connected on the level that we have. When we leave here, keep the conversations going. That is what this event is about.”

As the first virtual WLC drew to a close, attendees were already talking about the 2022 event in anticipation of an in-person conference. Jane Sparks of Gill Studios, Inc., and a member of the WLC workgroup, says, “WLC has far exceeded my expectations for a virtual conference. The variety of relevant content has been both informative and engaging. The roundtables have given us an opportunity to connect with new and old friends, which is always a key part of WLC. I look forward to being able to meet again in person.”

Joél Bastien of AIA Corporation, another member of the WLC workgroup, explains what it took to create this year’s extraordinary virtual experience. “With the primary vision of WLC being to create an engaging, collaborative community that enables diverse women to learn and network, the desire for the workgroup was to design an experience that kept those core tenants while providing a safe environment for attendees to gather. The workgroup focused on an event agenda with carefully selected guest speakers and content. The biggest obstacle in losing face-to-face interaction was reproducing the engagement and energy we feel when together at WLC, so integrating interactive activities was an important part of the planning. We incorporated Q&A, social dine-arounds, roundtable discussions, memory videos, surveys and more to promote this connection. While there is simply no exchange for in-person connections, the D2U event created an equally compelling, uplifting and powerful experience this week.”

Another way conference organizers worked to add a tangible element to the virtual event was to gift a box of eight specially-selected promo products to the first 75 conference registrants. Each BoxUp-donated box was mailed prior to the event and contained products provided by industry suppliers including: resistance bands from Hit Promotional Products; a Cupanion bottle from Fill It Forward; selfie Zoom light from Gordon Sinclair; a gummy candy box from Chocolate Inn/Lanco; a coaster from Gill Studios, Inc.; a magnet with poem from The Magnet Group; and a journal from JournalBooks. Supplier Citizen Watch America provided a watch which was won by a lucky attendee in a raffle on the final afternoon.

The three-day event was filled with plenty of opportunities for learning. Following Monday’s trio of inspiring and information-packed sessions, Tuesday’s program opened with an original poem by WLC workgroup member Laura Brewer, CAS, of Ariel Premium Supply and the day’s first session—an economic outlook for 2021 and beyond delivered by Chad Dziedzic of Blackrock, an investment management company. Next up was a session with Arlene Pace Green, PhD of Enelra Talent Solutions, LLC, on diversity, equity, inclusion and organizational leadership followed by Megan Baker of multinational medical tech corporation Stryker, who spoke about the power of purpose. Tuesday afternoon, attendees participated in roundtables and ended the day with a virtual dine-around on Zoom. Wednesday’s programming included breakout sessions on “Finding Your Why” and “Promo In A Virtual World,” along with a conversation with Dawn Olds, MAS, of HALO, and incoming PPAI board chair, and Brittany David, MAS, of SnugZ USA, and PPAI past chair. That afternoon, attendees watched a session on inclusive leadership with Kate Alavez of PromoShop, Inc. and an insightful presentation by Trooper Andrea Tillman, a Michigan State trooper, about one of their highly successful community programs. A final hour of roundtables and a brief closing session wrapped up this year’s WLC.

For the 56 first-time attendees, the event often exceeded their expectations in sometimes surprising ways. Among them was Emily West of SAGE, who says, “I had a fabulous time at WLC! As a first-time attendee, I didn’t know what to expect. I was very impressed with the level of interaction through a virtual platform and the speakers. Every speaker was fantastic. They each provided a different message and story, while conveying insight into ways that I can grow from a personal level and further my career. The message across the three days was very uplifting while still acknowledging that business may be different after a year in the pandemic. I hope to have the opportunity to attend next year.”

Another first-timer, Jean Moore of Moore Exposure, a Geiger affiliate, says, “WLC was so inspiring. I can’t believe I have been in the industry for 32 years and have never attended one. Hopefully, it will not be my last, and I really hope I get to attend one in person. I would like to meet the inspiring women that were on my screen for three days. I enjoyed every session, but I was particularly inspired by Jo-an Lantz, who has proven that dreaming it does make it happen, and Paula Wygonik, whose ‘Girl Grit’ attitude has made me look at what changes I need to make myself. Kudos to the workgroup for pulling the event off virtually. I cannot imagine how much work it took to get the event to run so smoothly.”

First-timer Cindy Belloso of Sunscope USA, says her experience was incredible. “Despite the conference being virtual, the energy and inspiration I felt was unbelievable. My favorite part was the roundtable discussions. Being part of a small, intimate conversation was nice, and finally being able to speak openly and honestly with the powerful women around me was incredible. I was able to push myself out of my comfort zone, thanks to these conversations.”

This was also the first WLC for Evie Sterner of HALO, who attended to meet other industry women and build new connections. “In the Wednesday closing remarks, there was a video where [we were asked to fill in the blank in this question], ‘When empowered women empower women, we feel… My answer is “unstoppable!’”

Donna VanSchagen of iPROMOTEu was also equally impressed. “As a first-time attendee to the WLC, having the opportunity to connect with such amazing women within the industry and being able to hear their stories has been truly inspiring. I can’t wait for next year!”

Amy Rabideau of ExtendTech, a frequent WLC attendee, says it’s difficult to pinpoint one speaker and session that makes this year’s WLC the women’s event of our industry but, “Paula Wygonik’s session and Q&A on ‘Girl Grit’ rang so true and authentic. She created a space for us to take a breath and collectively agree that we can not only weather life’s challenges but thrive.”

Another long-time WLC attendee, Jenny Straub, CAS, of Outdoor Cap, says, “While I would have loved to see all these awesome ladies in person, I really enjoyed this virtual event. The platform worked great and there were so many presentations that I loved. Two that stand out were Paula’s authenticity and wisdom of what it means to have grit and overcome the lows in your life while celebrating the successes and I loved Chad Dziedzic’s presentation because it is important to focus on your financial future and he delivered the message in such an approachable way. Fantastic event, as usual, for PPAI!”