Create & Cultivate Chicago 2018: What I Learned & Would I Go Again?
On Saturday, I attended one of the most talked about women’s entrepreneurship conferences in the country: Create & Cultivate. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a jam-packed day of panels, networking, and instagram opportunities and boasts high-profile speakers like Shay Mitchell, Alli Webb, and Jennifer Hudson. It’s put on by a company of the same name that hosts events like this around the country and creates content aimed at millennial women looking to start their own businesses.
Honestly, I went because everyone goes and, this year, it was hosted in my hometown of Chicago. Yes, tickets are expensive (general admission costs about $350), but I made a promise to myself this year that I would push myself to cultivate my career outside of work and this seemed like a perfect opportunity.
So, was Create & Cultivate worth it?
It was definitely a unique experience so to answer that, let me break down the pros, cons, tips, tricks, disappointments, and complaints from my experience.
- It’s Instagrammable AF. If you’ve ever been to a blogger event, you know that high you get from being around so much Instagram fodder. Create & Cultivate knows how to set up a photo shoot and knows everyone is there for the gram. #content
- You have real access to industry folks. If you’re brave enough to go up to someone you admire and introduce yourself, you will absolutely have the chance to do that here. This is probably the most valuable thing about the conference. Panelists and speakers are often just standing around in the crowd, so it’s definitely a great opportunity to meet people who may be valuable to your business.
- It’s more than just a fashion-blogger conference. My fear going in was that it would be very fashion-blogger oriented and in some ways it was, but there was a huge range in the kinds of businesses represented beyond that, too. I was on Track One, which was focused on business and entrepreneurship, so I got to see a wider variety of people speak than Track Two, which was aimed more at social media and content creation. One of my favorite panels of the day featured successful women in the food industry actually, so don’t be turned off if you’re not a fashion person.
- You meet pretty cool people. My goal for every event I go to is just to talk to one person. Of course over the course of 12 hours I talked to way more people than that, but I always think if I make one great connection with someone, it’s worth it. I met founders of furniture companies, social media managers for the government, business consultants, famous bloggers, tech company founders, etc. It was very cool to hear people be so passionate about a diverse range of projects.
- So. Much. Swag. This is obviously not that important, but of course it’s fun to get a bunch of beauty products and cool stuff from brands! I got to do a little unboxing for my family when I got home, which was hilarious.
WHAT I LEARNED
- On Pinterest: I thought Pinterest was dead, so I was shocked at how many people attributed a big part of their success to the platform. For many blogs and retailers, it’s still their #1 driver of traffic and one of their biggest drivers of sales. I believe it was Alaina Kaczmarski from the EveryGirl that made the point that Pinterest content lasts so much longer than any other platform and actually gains value over time. This is why it’s such a powerful driver of traffic. Plus, it’s totally passive – you post a pin and it does the work for you. A few other tips:
- What performs well according to CEO, Ben Silbermann:
- Showcasing a product in the context of real life
- Vertical Images
- Imagery and copy together – think text overlay
- Focus on the number of views, not number of followers. People use Pinterest as a search engine and aren’t as concerned with following, so views are the real MVP.
- Choose a few great photos from a blog post to upload to your Pinterest, instead of uploading every single photo. A few great photos will do much better than a bunch of similar ones.
- Get a Business account because it signals to Pinterest that you want your account and pins to be discovered. And make sure to claim your domain so you can use the analytics tools.
- People love Pinterest because it’s actionable – that’s why it’s such a hub for DIY content and recipes. If you have DIY content, it’s a perfect place to push that.
- Tailwind was mentioned as a good app for managing Pinterest.
- What performs well according to CEO, Ben Silbermann:
- On Negotiating: The best advice I heard about negotiating was from Zoe Scharf of Greetabl. As an employer hiring people, she said that she not only expected everyone she hired to negotiate their salary, but it made her more confident in the abilities of the person she was hiring. If someone had the confidence and drive to negotiate for themselves, she knew they would bring those same abilities to negotiate on behalf of her company. I loved that. A few other good quotes:
- “If my value was 0, you wouldn’t have come to me.” – Blake Von D
- Not related to negotiation, but I loved this quote from Zoe: “Design is the elevator pitch of the internet.”
- “Time kills all deals.” – Reesa Lake
- The quote of the session definitely was: “I’m not too expensive, you just can’t afford me yet.” – Blake Von D explaining that not everyone is going to be your customer.
- On Feedback: On many different panels, I heard the old adage: stay connected to your customer. Of course I’ve heard it before and think that user testing is one of the most valuable tools out there. But I only ever thought about it in terms of product. What about for blogging? Who are my “customers”? I don’t create a product, but I do create content and I hadn’t really ever thought about doing ‘user testing’ for my writing. It definitely encourages me to solicit more feedback from people!
- “Feedback is a gift.” – Alli Webb, founder of Dry Bar
- A few other random quotes I loved:
- Women shaming. My biggest criticism of the Create & Cultivate conference was the very shallow concept of feminism that dogged the event. Feminism felt like a slogan – “women supporting women” – instead of an integral part of the event and the conference lacked the intersectionality and inclusivity necessary to make feminism work at all. At one point a panelist even said “women create their own glass ceiling”, which essentially sums up the low-key women shaming that was happening throughout the day. A lot of the rhetoric relied on the assumption that women are weak, “intimidated”, and don’t know their worth, which I don’t think is generally true. But even if women do feel that way, it’s not their fault! The conference made it seem like it was a personal failing if women were socially conditioned to be more quiet and passive than men. I would have loved to see the focus shift from “women, here’s what you’re doing wrong” to “here’s what we can do to change the system”. I understand that I’m at a social media conference, not an academic consortium, but if you’re going to make feminism part of your brand you should at least have a basic understanding of what it means beyond “women supporting women”. In general, I was pretty bummed out at the assumptions made about women in the workplace at this conference. I heard the phrases “imposter syndrome” and “know your worth” so many times I could scream. Yes, fewer women negotiate their starting salaries and there are fewer women at the C level, but there seem like more productive and actionable ways to talk about this then scolding women for not being “brave” enough.
- Lack of diversity. Beyond the unconvincing feminism at the conference, diversity was another big issue. The main stage conversations were sorely lacking in conversations about race and not once did I hear a white panelist call for the elevation of the voices of women of color, trans women, or LGBTQ+ people. If you want to talk about “women supporting women”, you can’t assume that all women are coming from the same starting point. The price of conference itself acts a barrier to most women! There were more attendees and speakers of color than I expected, which was great, but the conference didn’t feel like a safe space to bring those kinds of issues up. That crowd was such a powerful group of women, so I was certainly disappointed to see issues of race, religion, class, gender identity, and sexuality skirted around or outright ignored.
- The information was very high-level and basic. I was really hoping for at least a few deep-dives into topics like monetization, up-and-coming apps, and ways to effectively grow your audience. But it was a lot of the same information you see online – “growth takes time and consistency”, “be your authentic self”, “it’s all about engagement”. I wish there had been more information about how to do these things, strategies people use to do it, and tools that are helpful. A lot of the advice just felt very generic to me.
- They do not feed you enough. I know it sounds silly, but when you’re hungry, you’re not paying attention. When you’re worried about getting enough food, you’re not paying attention. When you’re leaving panels early to go stand in line to get food, you’re not paying attention. And since you can’t leave and return, you’re pretty much trapped there. Plus, you can’t help but think they’re sending a message to attendees when they only hand you a salad for a lunch!
- No one wears name tags. I just thought this was weird! You’re at an event where the primary activity is networking and you’re already wearing a lanyard – why don’t we have nametags?!
- Go in with a game plan of who you want to meet. You will get a lot more out of the networking component of the conference if you know who you want to meet. Then, basically stalk them until you have an opportunity to go up and introduce yourself. People won’t be weirded out – the event sort of gives you permission to randomly talk to people, so it’s a great way to make introductions you might not be able to otherwise.
- Ask specific questions. Otherwise, you’re only going to get high-level, not helpful answers. I wish I had come in with a more specific list of questions or a better idea of what kind of information I was looking for from speakers and other attendees.
- Wear a statement piece. I know this sounds superficial (and you’re right), but I found it really helpful to wear something that made me stand out. I wore a ridiculous sequined jacket and it ended up being both a great conversation starter and a way for people to remember me.
- Bring snacks. See bullet point 4 above.
- Go to whatever you want. There was a panel on Track Two that I really wanted to see, so… I just went. The event takes place in an open air environment and no one asked me to leave, so I just watched the panel and then returned to my track. They make choosing your Track seem like a big deal (it’s one of the only big differences between the GA and VIP tickets), but you can honestly go to whatever events you want.
IS IT WORTH IT?
In my honest opinion, no. For $350 I didn’t feel like I got my money’s worth out of the Create & Cultivate experience. Yes, it was motivating to hear a lot of women talk about how they kick ass and I did really enjoy the people that I met. Plus, it’s always nice to feel pampered with swag. But the content of the conference itself was vague and generic, which was disappointing to me.
If you’re someone who responds really well to hearing other people’s stories, then you might have a much better experience. But I was hoping to take away some great tips to help my blog and my marketing work and I felt pretty robbed of both.
I would say that if you’re looking for a great networking opportunity and you are willing to pay that much to meet certain people in attendance, then it might be worth it to you. But if you’re going as a general attendee who wants to learn some things and meet some interesting people, there are other, cheaper events that you could go to. Create & Cultivate’s Work Party tour, for example, will likely draw a lot of the same people as the conference (minus the big names) without the giant price tag.
Of course, the most unfortunate part of the event, though, was the disappointing but unsurprising corporatization of feminism. Certainly the message was nice – I think we should definitely support other women! – but the conversation around it was not nuanced and inclusive enough to be relevant in 2018. I hope that Create & Cultivate continues to bring women together, but I also hope they more directly address issues that affect many women trying to develop their careers in this country.
Here’s to hoping…