Two years after the pandemic forced PPAI to cancel the 2020 Women’s Leadership Conference (WLC), scheduled for Charlotte, North Carolina, the event’s education and networking have landed in the Queen City this week.

Following a celebration of the 2022 Woman of Achievement on Sunday night, keynotes, presentations and panels kicked off on Monday morning under the theme of transformational leadership. Some 120 leading industry women are in attendance.

WLC Workgroup chair Roni Wright, MAS, of The Book Company, says she envisioned the overall concept behind the event’s programming as a nod to the promotional products industry emerging from the pandemic and into a changed world.

“Now, leadership is different. The world is different,” Wright says. “As leaders, we need to step back, learn about ourselves, and then learn about the people on our team or our customers.”

Education sessions focused on the changing marketplace and the promotional products industry itself included a discussion on proper digital transformation from PPAI President and CEO Dale Denham, MAS+, as well as a panel delving into all thing corporate social responsibility. Monday’s opening keynote was delivered by entrepreneur and innovation expert Sara Frasca. The afternoon’s presentations began with a talk on people-first leadership by Kate Alvarez, COO of Los Angeles-based distributor PromoShop, and Erin Reilly, the CEO of Philadelphia-based supplier Pop! Promos.

“Your company doesn’t grow without people—without really engaged team members,” Reilly says. “The more you can do to foster that environment, it’ll set you up to grow.”

Wright cited the 1992 Al Pacino movie Glengarry Glen Ross, depicting cutthroat, bottom-line sales results, as an outdated model of leadership for the modern era, in which authenticity and vulnerability are seen as more valuable traits in leadership. Along with discussions on keeping pace with evolving market desires, Monday’s sessions were designed to encourage the natural leadership styles among attendees.

Alvarez, who says she occasionally speaks to classrooms, cites emotional intelligence in leadership as increasingly important. “Students are our next buyers, clients and employees, and they shift our perspective on how we build a workforce that is helpful for others,” she says. “That transformation process really has taken place, from the (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.), come in and do your work and go home, to a people-centered approach.”

The people-centered approach was built into WLC 2022. Opportunities to meet and mix with peers have been engineered throughout the event, not only in free range networking breaks, but also in arranged seating designed to introduce attendees to new people, roundtable discussions that ease the way for introverts, and a dine-around experience meant to forge new relationships.

New to WLC this year and designed to introduce more voices to the audience are the intermittent Promo Snacks, brief TED Talk-styled presentations that break up the longer lectures and promote engagement.

“Especially in the age of TikTok, we have short attention spans,” says Charity Gibson of Peerless Umbrella, who delivered a Promo Snack on Monday morning. “Easily digestible bites of information are sometimes more impactful and more memorable.”

Wright, who has been to every rendition of WLC since it began in 2010, says the networking at WLC is especially valuable to young attendees and those new to the industry, presenting chances to connect with potential mentors and forge bonds with colleagues that may exist for decades.

Tuesday morning’s keynote, by Tech Savvy Women president JJ Digeronimo, is geared toward emerging leaders. SPARK was represented at the event, including a networking reception for young professionals on Monday.

Wright emphasized that WLC is an opportunity for promo’s leading women of all ages to connect, but that the content isn’t particular to women.

“The topics are really for everybody,” she says. “It’s just that women—we have babies, we have kids, challenges that men have not had. When we come together, there’s a really interesting bond that has formed.”