It’s 11:30 in the morning and Claudia Chan has a circle of people attending to her. There’s her public-relations folk, guest speakers, employees, and her husband, who retreats as a man armed with a sheet of bobby pins tries to make the mike stay in her short, dark hair. She’s dressed in all black, save bright red pumps, and talking in buzzwords: entrepreneurship, social media, and ... girls’ night dinners?
Those dinners, she says, are the inspiration for the event she’s currently preparing to speak in front of. It’s the first day of the SHE Summit, Chan’s second annual conference for women, which she hopes can serve as a hybrid of empowerment and entertainment. As I signed in at the front last Friday, Alicia Keys’s anthemic “Girl on Fire” blasted through the sprawling SoHo loft, and a few nearby attendees sang along. “Got our heads in the clouds and we’re not coming down.”
In sessions ranging from “Success Stories and Lessons From Working Moms” to “Women and Science: Connecting on Curiosity,” the 50 or so speakers from diverse backgrounds sit on white couches discussing a wealth of issues: editors of Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal chat about women in the media. Executives from PepsiCo, UBS, and Gilt Groupe talk entrepreneurship, brand building, and work-life balance. Social entrepreneurs mull for-profit versus nonprofit ventures.
There are, of course, already many conferences, including women-specific ones (including our very own Women in the World). In this space, Chan hopes hers will serve as a sort of big tent. “There's Restaurant Week, South by Southwest, Fashion Week,” Chan says, but “women are not just about fashion or a specific thing. The modern woman today thinks, ‘Sure, I like to buy nice things, but I also want to figure out how to run my business better.’”
These factors are fused into the SHE Summit. The two-day event is punctuated by activities you wouldn’t normally find at your run-of-the-mill business gathering: meditations, dance breaks, and “random acts of play,” as Chan calls them. In between sessions, she encourages everyone to interact—at one point we’re directed to turn to the women sitting nearby and describe their favorite childhood toy. At night, the DJ turns up the music, and cocktail hour begins.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s femme bible Lean In is mentioned twice in the first hour I’m there. But that isn’t exactly what the ethos of this conference is all about. “I feel like I’m walking on handstands rather than leaning in sometimes,” Chan jokes.
And it’s hard to see how she could stay fully upright at all with her undertakings of the last two years. The 38-year-old is a brand of her own making, and she was bred for it. Growing up in New York City with a breadwinner mother, Chan attended all-girls schools for both high school and college. For almost a decade, she ran girls nightlife company Shecky’s, but became disillusioned with the lack of acknowledgment powerful women were receiving. “It’s not like we have a shortage of incredible women doing incredible things,” Chan says. “We have a shortage of mainstream magazines, TV shows, and websites that are really sharing the stories of remarkable women.”
In March 2012, she launched ClaudiaChan.com, which gathers interviews of successful women and serves as a guide for women seeking life and career guidance. “The idea was that I would share the advice and stories of today's female change makers to give other women those resources and the tools to really pursue the dreams, and I wanted to do it in a way that was extremely relatable and acceptable,” she says, describing it as ”mentorship on demand.” But Chan is more modest than you’d think for a woman operating a self-branded company. She explains that she named it after herself because wanted the site to convey a more personal feeling. “I'm not really the destination, I'm the facilitator,” she says.
The day before the conference, Chan spoke about the variety of women she hoped to find congregating in the space. There were three: the ones starting out in a career track; those in transition who want to climb the ladder; and the women who have found a path that perfectly fits them. All three need some level of support, she says.
“You don’t meet many women who say, ‘No, we don’t need more role models,’” the event’s public-relations manager told me while the audience mingled before lunch. Then, as we were dismissed, Chan asked everyone to introduce themselves to the people around them. The two women behind me—one an entrepreneur hoping to get her start in the business world, the other a headhunter for major investment firms—seemed to embody Chan’s vision for industry and interest diversity. A few seats over, Chan, who, she told me, is “on a journey totally in line with my calling,” had found her support, in the form of an audience of 1,000 women simultaneously tweeting, discussing angel investments, and comparing lip-gloss colors.