This innovative, women-only networking event took place 30,000 feet above the ground

Sky’s the limit.
Sky’s the limit.
Image: Reuters/Lyle Ratliff
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

For many people, networking is a forced and artificial exercise. You make small talk, you exchange business cards, and you move on to the next person with little to show for your efforts.

But what if there was a way to network without all the terrible “networking?” Last month, Marie Claire turned the process on its head with PowerTrip, a 36-hour, bicoastal conference for women designed to maximize every minute of the short trip—especially flying time. The event brought 100 female CEOs and entrepreneurs in tech, politics, fashion, and entertainment from the East Coast together with 100 female entrepreneurs and CEOs from the West Coast.

Created with the schedules and preferences of busy women in mind, the pop-up conference took advantage of the confined space and hours on a plane to force interaction, developing an agenda that combined group activities with structured mingling.

“We wanted to turn the conference format inside out and create plenty of opportunities for interaction,” says Marie Claire editor-in-chief Anne Fulenwider. “The most valuable and fun experiences don’t happen in the conference room but, instead, by the coffee or on the buffet line,” she says. “It’s out of a casual gathering that relationships are formed.”

“Networking, in general, is a word I have distain for,” agrees Lauren Maillian, a host on Oxygen’s Quit Your Day Job and a PowerTrip participant. Having a personal connection or a common interest is an essential ingredient in any business relationship, she says. “Otherwise you could just swap business cards and you wouldn’t even need to have a conversation at all.”

And so, on a crisp morning in March, 100 women boarded a chartered JetBlue flight from John F. Kennedy Airport bound for San Francisco International Airport. Those in attendance had been vetted carefully, Fulenwider says.

During the six-hour flight, participants were encouraged to get up, walk around, and talk with each other. Women could also connect virtually through the messaging app Slack or in person during small group meet-ups in the first class section of the plane. Mallian, who was on the flight, says she made “real and genuine” connections because “everyone there was incredibly present.”

Trip participants say that being in a small space with like-minded peers did indeed foster a unique kind of bond. Jill Furman, president of Jill Furman Productions and one of the four producers of the Broadway musical Hamilton, says she’s no stranger to networking. And yet, something about this event was different. “I felt like I was a member of a club,” she says, noting that two of the women she met on the trip have already provided new opportunities for her to pursue. “Normally,” she says, “it takes longer for these connections to develop.”

Other women noted that simply being on a plane with nowhere else to go and no interruptions gave them a sense of freedom—and, indeed, fun—that is almost never associated with more traditional networking events.

At a large conference, it can prove difficult to engage, says Jennifer Davis, executive director of Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network. But, she says, in a confined area like an airplane cabin, something as simple as walking up and down the aisle forces eye contact and interaction.

Then there was the conference’s rather unique time management strategy. Everyone is time-strapped, says Gabby Etrog-Cohen, senior vice president of public relations and brand strategy for SoulCycle. It was a gift to have time on the plane when participants didn’t need to be checking their email, taking phone calls or ducking out for meetings.

Once back on the ground in San Francisco, the group met up with 100 women from San Francisco and Los Angeles. Together, the group listened to speakers including Gwyneth Paltrow, Tyra Banks, Beautycon CEO Moj Mahdara, and YouTube personality Bethany Mota. Fulenwider said they purposely kept the speakers “brief and valuable.”

The rest of the time that day was spent at a cocktail party and then at a dinner with assigned seating. “I was seated next to someone who lived a block away from me but I didn’t know her,” said Rachel McCarthy, vice president for Talent at JetBlue. “It’s nice to build connections with people that aren’t work related.”

The next morning, the group heard about marketplace disruption from ClassPass CEO Payal Kadakia, Rent the Runway CEO Jennifer Hyman, and Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi. Actress Tracee Ellis Ross spoke about feminism and authenticity. By 10am, the New York City group was heading back to the airport to fly home. Despite the packed schedule, the return flight was filled with conversation.

The design of the conference may be unusual, but it aligns with the types of networking preferred by women, according to Joanna Barsh, director emerita for McKinsey & Company and author of Centered Leadership. That means a limited number of attendees, like-minded people, and a shared purpose. “I don’t think women want to be unleashed on hundreds of people to hand out their business cards,” says Barsh. “Those relationships would be superficial.”

For example, women generally prefer relationships built on trust, while men tend to have broad, shallow networks, says Barsh. In fact, data from a 2012 McKinsey study co-authored by Barsh, “Unlocking the Full Potential of Women at Work,” shows that some women are actually more interested in developing deep relationships at work than they are in climbing to the very top of the corporate pyramid.

McKinsey interviewed successful men and women from 60 US companies for its study. When the women were asked why they loved their jobs, most said because of the meaningful relationships they had developed at work. Indeed, the majority worried that advancing to the C-suite would require them to jeopardize relationships or compromise their personal integrity.

Bonding experiences can be very empowering, agrees Carrie Barron, a board-certified psychiatrist at the Columbia College of Physicians. Barron cited a landmark 2006 UCLA study by Gale Berkowitz that shows women release the hormone oxytocin when create friendships. This hormone helps to keep stress levels low, a valuable asset during uncomfortable or challenging situations.

The PowerTrip, Barron says, was like putting people on a desert island. Instead of the goal of survival, however, these temporary castaways were hoping to improve their business contacts in a way that felt professionally and emotionally authentic. Ideally, this is a win-win situation. “Networking might be an off-putting word,” Dell Women’s Jennifer Davis says, “but there is nothing more important in business than having a network to help get business done.”