• Laura WP

How Nerd Girls' Weekend Changed My Life

The Three Gophers on the Moroccan coast in Feb 2019

About a year and a half ago, in the fall of 2017, I met up with a group of nine women from my Stanford business school class for the weekend. This was not a girls’ weekend.

Of course it was a weekend of all women, but the focus was not relaxing, or the spa, or gossip, or wine, or even bonding or hanging out. I wouldn’t even consider all these women to be particularly good friends.

This was more like nerd girls’ weekend. The focus was on self discovery, reflection, connection, and learning.

At our fifth year reunion, my friend Lindsay called a meeting. She messaged 9 of her friends from school and asked us to all meet her outside the alumni center. She had a proposal. Lindsay was missing the deep, facilitated connections with women that the GSB was adept at fostering through structured interaction. These sorts of moments just didn’t happen organically in her day to day life. Were any of us feeling that way? Would we be interested in self-organizing a retreat once a year to try to approximate some of what we’d gained from our two years at the GSB on an ongoing basis?

Eight of the nine were game, and sort of without knowing what I was committing to, I agreed to show up in Aptos, CA, to a condo by the beach for a weekend away with eight other women, some of whom I barely knew, with the explicit purpose of getting vulnerable and pushing myself to define and reassess some of my priorities and values that were guiding my life.

Fall of 2017 was our third annual weekend. The first covered everything from personal finances to ambition to dynamics with parents and adult siblings. The second extended these themes and touched on relationships, motherhood, entrepreneurship, and self-care. The topics were sourced by the group a few weeks before, and folks volunteered to facilitate different sessions or to arrange meals and snacks. We all pitched in, and all participated, even when it was uncomfortable or we were being stretched.

I did not anticipate, despite how real and deep past weekends had been, that the 2017 weekend would set into motion some of the most dramatic changes in my life to date.

I was pregnant at the time, and I was CEO of Code2040, the nonprofit I co-founded. That weekend I was in the middle of playing defense against an employee who was threatening to destroy the organization if we didn’t give in to his demands. I was on the phone with lawyers, the board, and keeping my laptop within arms reach. I was not happy.

I loved Code2040, but I had a suspicion that my time as its leader had run its course. I write way more about this here, but in short, the organization needed a strategic shift, and I did not think I was the right person to lead us through it. My immediate priority however was to neutralize some of the greatest threats to the organization. Then I could think about what was next.

I had been doing that for awhile -- I just have to do X and then I can think about what’s next. Of course it’s obvious from the outside that this thinking makes no sense. There is rarely a natural break at work. Projects overlap, responsibilities persist, commitments to attend or speak at events are made weeks or months in advance. There’s no point when everything stops to give you a nice long while to think things through.

I could not have predicted it, but I did not need a nice long while. I needed a short while with some very smart, empathetic, analytical women who could understand my competing needs and commitments and desires. And that’s what I got that weekend.

One of the last sessions of the weekend was led by Julia. She had taken some of the principles from the Stanford class (and book) Design Your Life and adapted them for a short format workshop. We were all to spend a few minutes envisioning three different futures for ourselves. One of the futures that we’d present back to the group was supposed to be “wild” -- a wild idea for what your life could look like in the next few years.

I don’t remember my other two futures, because they quickly ceased to matter. When I described my wild future, it was that I was a travel writer, traveling full time and writing about my adventures. I knew this was crazy. I was CEO of a dynamic, impactful, prominent nonprofit that was poised for massive impact and also under threat. There was no way I was going to be a travel writer.

There was a short pause in the room and then the reactions began. And they were unanimous. Actually, there is not no way. You can do this. If it is what you want, you can do it.

I did not believe it at first. But rather than continue the exercise and move on to the next person, the group stayed with me. Helping me think through what Code2040 needed, was ready for, could weather. And what I needed, was ready for, and could allow myself to dream. Having eight smart, in tune, empathetic, analytical, supportive women coaching you through the path to your wildest dreams is a pretty incredible experience, and there were times in the conversation when I felt completely overwhelmed, just trying to process the clarity that was dawning when I could see my life through a prism of several other selfless perspectives.

The whole piece of the conversation centered on me could not have been more than about 20 minutes. But it was deeply affecting.

I left the weekend with a conviction: I am going to do this. I did not know when, or how, but when I got in my car at the end of the weekend to drive up to San Francisco, I knew with certainty that my husband and I would both quit our jobs and we would travel for an extended period of time. And I would blog about it. My next career might not be as a travel writer, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t travel, and write about it.

I could not have anticipated how quickly it would all come to pass. For a variety of reasons including the great good fortune of having an excellent successor in house (more here) I ended up stepping down as CEO of Code2040 just a few months after that weekend (more here). After ensuring a smooth transition, I left the organization altogether a few months later.

In fact, when the next annual nerd girls’ weekend rolled around in September of 2018, the timing was fortuitous. It was just a few days before my husband, baby and I were to move out of our house, a week before we were taking what little we had left of our belongings, and getting on a plane to leave the country. It was my “wild” scenario come to pass. We were flying from San Francisco to Rome to start a year of travel.

And the day before we got on our flight, I published my first blog post. I may not be a travel writer, but I’m traveling and I’m writing, and that feels pretty darn good. If you want to follow along, more here.

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