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BusinessNovember 15, 2018

Boss babes this way: inside the most Instagrammed business event of the year

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Alex Casey braves blue alcohol at 10.30am and social media paparazzi to learn female entrepreneurial lessons at the petal cupcake-festooned Girls in Business gathering.

The day opened with an emergency announcement: the free fake tan in the goodie bags was leaking. “Make sure you keep them upright ladies,” event organiser Iyia Liu advised the 450-strong crowd. Behind us at the bar, bright blue alcohol was being poured into rows of glasses under the glow of pink neon lights. The remaining young women tottered in heels to their seats, their impeccable highlighter glinting through the dark. Liu pointed finger guns to the sky and yelled. “Let’s get this party started!!”

It was 10.30am on a Saturday morning and I was already quite overwhelmed.

Iyia Liu, getting the party started on a Saturday… morning

The Girls in Business networking event was an all-day extravaganza in Auckland’s Shed 10, organised by “serial entrepreneur” Iyia Liu of Waist Trainer and Celebration Box notoriety. The official website touted it as “an event not to be missed for all entrepreneurial minded females”, with GA tickets selling for $139.95 (and VIP for $249.95 featuring famed leaky tan in the goodie bags). Not only were attendees promised they would “walk away feeling inspired, motivated and with a ton of new connections,” there were also grazing platters (yuck!) and unlimited drinks (yum!!) provided.

A grazing platter a day keeps the doctor away.

Indeed, in the middle of every table sat a social media-friendly rat king of loose hams, cheeses, breads and dip. Being incredibly dark inside, it was less an an opportunity for a languid nibble and more a game of Russian roulette with a high risk of Instagram paparazzo. I coyly reached for a cracker and interrupted someone’s Boomerang. I tried once more for a grape just as someone else’s flash went off. Across the table, two women in hot pink “crew” t-shirts seized my distracting faux pas to grab some carrot sticks. “Sorry for hoeing in, we’ve been here since 6am and we haven’t eaten.”

I wasn’t surprised in the slightest that the event had taken four hours to set up. Everywhere you looked there was intricate Instagram bait, from the elaborate balloon garland on stage – assembled by stylist OMGNess, who would close out the day – to two different floral walls to be photographed in front of, to a tower of promotional petal cupcakes, even strange bouquets of fruit that were simply begging for an ant invasion. Trestle tables lined the shed littered with freebies, vouchers, discount cards and small bottles of health potions. I grabbed a handful of each and did a shot of charcoal to stave off death. I felt 900 years old. 

I got hooked on Insta-bait

After a welcome speech from the primary event sponsor AMI, the schedule kicked off with Annette Presley ONZM, co-founder of Slingshot and Orcon and a Bojack Horseman character in the flesh. “I want to tell you a story about a little girl,” she began, stalking the stage with the confidence of a TEDx veteran. “Spoiler alert: I think the girl is her,” whispered my friend Zoe, before missing her mouth in the dark and spilling pesto all over her top. “At the age of 10, she had a major operation…” continued Presley, “she had her tonsils out.”

“At age 12, her parents were told she would be a vegetable. She would see the world – but through the eyes of a vegetable.” Is that still a fine thing to say? Presley paused, a master orator, before delivering the ol’ M. Night Shyamalan switcheroo. “That same little girl is standing right here in front of you.”

I’ve truly never seen anyone like her in my life, balancing out every five Brent-esque clichés with a gem from her decades of experience and $70 million net worth. A lot of her mantras seemed to be spelling-based – “Impossible: if you take out the ‘I’ and the ‘M’, what do you get?” and “Work. I hate that word. W-O-R-K. I don’t think I’ve worked a day in my life.” Remembering her time on Dragon’s Den, she called Bob Jones an asshole, before amending that “he gave me a ride in his jet the other day so I can’t be too angry”. Incredible, relatable content.

Bob Jones’ jet-mate

Despite the relentless use of catchphrases – say “feel the fear and do it anyway” one more time – Presley softened when she revealed the more personal hardships she had faced as a woman during her career. She opened up about relationships falling apart, failing in public and surviving the trauma of six miscarriages. Things became pointed when she reflected on the socialisation of women to shy away from opportunities. “We don’t stand up and we don’t step up,” she explained, recalling having to force past female employees to take pay rises and promotions.

Unsurprisingly, she couldn’t say the same about any of their male counterparts.

In the spirit of being a girl boss, a business babe and also a boss bitch, I snuck to the bar to grab two complimentary fancy 1Above flight waters – I don’t even like the taste of them but they cost about $10 at the airport. Is this leaning in?

Presley’s tricky follow-up act was Lisa King of Eat My Lunch, who launched her social enterprise with the goal of feeding Kiwi kids going to school without lunch. Inspired by Tom’s buy-one-give-one model, she thought she had struck gold, only to have her friends dismiss her idea and her bank turn her away at the first meeting.

“It’s okay, I changed banks,” she said with a wicked grin, before outlining how the company then hit their three-year forecast in their twelfth week of operation. After all, when you take away the I and the M, what do you get? 

In my defence of this bad photo, it was VERY dark

There was a romance to the way King talked about the early days of Eat My Lunch – cooking 60kgs worth of chicken in her domestic kitchen and grilling veges on the barbecue at 4am every night. Still, I couldn’t help getting into a debate in my head with Henry and Henry about the murky model. Thanking her, MC Liu revealed she had volunteered to make lunches for Eat My Lunch a handful of times. “It’s so fun, you pack up some pretzels, wrap a sandwich and off it goes,” she said, with an air of marvel reserved for someone who will probably never pack a lunch again.

After a short break, we returned to the dulcet tones of Suzy Cato. I had earlier seen her tentatively picking at a promotional Petal cupcake and taking selfies with excited fans, a calm childhood totem in a confusing modern world. She sang, of course, before leading a panel called “Standing Out in a Saturated Market”. With Liu on the couch alongside Kate Jarrett of Loxy’s, Kate Walsh of Little Honey and Vyctorya Vo of The Art of Nails, it didn’t go unnoticed that they all dealt in the business of appearance. For women, I’m guessing that’s the most saturated market there is.

Suzy Cato, making me feel safe since ages ago

Kate Walsh from Little Honey cracked everyone up while explaining her journey of making the perfect fake tan as a new mother. “You know: you tan, you pick the baby up, you go to feed, then that baby’s got a really brown face.”

Optimistically, it was cool to hear women harnessing their own insights from being lifelong cosmetic consumers (read: prisoners) to make heaps of cash. Walsh, for example, pioneered ‘the boyfriend glove’ so partners can help apply tan without ripping the dainty glove. Cynically, it rarks me up that most men never even think about fake tan once, let alone have it as a major panel discussion point, you know?

I had wondered how Liu would address the big Kit Kat-covered elephant in the room, aka the controversy around her latest venture, Celebration Box. “When you’re starting out, you never get it 100% right. You get feedback and you have to constantly adapt and improve,” she said. “Often things you might think are great, you have to tweak. Especially when you get the same complaint over and over again.” She alluded to having “media problems” in the past few months and that her advice was to “wait it out and it will blow over.”

The elephant in the corner started gnawing on an unwrapped Zombie Chew to stay quiet.

Platters for breakfast, lunch and tea

We took a unsanctioned break to sit in the sunny real world and drink a beer, while the throng of hundreds crowded around the LUNCH GRAZING PLATTER. I also just snapped all my fingers off trying not to write a cattle pun. An hour later, we returned to see Karen Walker perched oddly on the chair arm on stage, delivering a sermon on fashion sustainability.

“We don’t need any more clothes,” she said, controversially for a fashion designer. “We could stop making clothes now and we’d be fine for 50 years.” Easily the best speaker of the day, she regaled the room with stories of how she smashed modelling conventions with everyone from Toast the rescue dog to Roberta the 93-year-old. Refreshingly, she was also realistic about the role of luck in her success. 

“The thing with luck is that you have to be in a place where you can seize the opportunity,” explained Walker, a bold acknowledgement of privilege in comparison to to Presley’s advice to “just mortgage your house” or “borrow from a friend” if you are looking to start a new business. She was assured, confident and genuinely inspiring, opting for Helmuth von Moltke the Elder’s words of war (“no battle plan survives the enemy”) over candy floss clichés. When she eyeballed the audience of hungry young women and said “don’t you ever settle for close enough”, I got full body chills.

The shed was fucking freezing, mind you.

Behold: Karen Walker’s unique sitting style

Towards the end of the day, the piece de resistance was the panel of social media influencers, chaired by the nation’s most intriguing ex-TV presenter, Erin Simpson (37.7k followers). It was a truly influential couch with Simone Anderson (283k), Riley Hemson (113k), Zoe Fuimaono (52.3k) and Jamie Curry (415k) boasting a combined following of nearly one million on Instagram alone. There was endless talk of staying authentic, doing things for the right reasons, and being true to yourself and your audience. Curry in particular provided a cool slouchy energy to proceedings.

Simpson vs Curry: iconic

“I was just 16 and I knew how to use the internet,” said Curry on her online success. “I took a photo, I posted it, and people liked it. I don’t have a science to it, I’m just lucky. I honestly don’t know, I really don’t know why I’m here.” Anderson, who shared her tremendous 92kg weight loss journey with her followers, had a more earnest reason for her influencing. “Even if there are products and brands involved, there’s still that really powerful message behind it all that’s going to help make changes in the world. It’s not just another Instagrammer selling another protein powder.” 

Much of the influencer panel was spent talking about how best they can work with brands and businesses to hawk their wares, which felt a little odd considering the room was, presumably, filled with many from their follower bases who they hawked to. “It’s hard to relate to an image in a magazine or a TV show or a newspaper,” said Anderson, “but if you’re watching someone every day, they become part of your life and you actually feel like they are one of your close friends. It’s like: she lives in Auckland and she’s wearing that Glassons top, and I live in Auckland and I can afford that top – that product suddenly becomes more accessible.”

Simone Anderson, Zoe Fuimaono and Riley Hemson

There are obviously downsides to living your life online and getting showered in glorious Glassons tops and protein powder on the regular. “I took two years off posting content, because I started doing smiley videos when I didn’t really feel like smiling,” said Curry of her recently-lifted hiatus. At the height of Jamie’s World mania, she had a couple of real life altercations that caused her to reassess her online presence. “People would come up to me and say nasty things, I had a guy punch me in the eye once.” Anderson talked about how the online hate left on her page would cause her to cry in bed for days. I didn’t envy any of them.

It’s also no surprise that the panel knew Instagram inside and out – as much as Curry tried to deny it. Anderson outlined her Sunday nights from 7-9pm – her most popular posting time – before explaining that you should alway use the new features on a platform, as they will reward you by putting you higher up in the feed.

Hemson shared the extremely intense factoid that you only have two seconds to make an impression on a scrolling Instagram user. This, partnered with some advice earlier in the day about 80% of a stranger’s perception about you being defined in the first minute, did not make me feel particularly relaxed.

The hashtag was embraced by all

For all the Typo-inspired platitudes that filled Shed 10 that day – even our notebooks were emblazoned with “she can, and she will” – it was initially hard to glean how much practical advice the 460 women had actually come away with at the end of the day. But after talking to some feverish attendees bursting with ideas, and later scrolling Instagram – stopping for only two seconds at a time – the response became clear. “So many inspiring speakers today #grateful #girlbosses” said one woman.”Thanks to these women who inspired me to make something of myself,” said another. #Inspired. #Goals. #Epic. #Boss. #Babe.

And for those who didn’t come away with an inspirational hashtag or two, at least they got some nice new photos. 

Keep going!