Women on the Water (WOW): Three Lessons from #bossladies on the Salmon River

“Powerful men have long bonded during excursions of one sort or another, but such opportunities for women are rare. We have seen first-hand how important friendships and alliances forged through shared experiences can be, especially when those experiences are shared far away on beautiful and wild rivers.”
– From the March 2018 invitation letter received by Pat Welch, cofounder of Boly:Welch

It sure seems like the glass ceiling (or concrete ceiling, if you’re a woman of color) is holding strong.

Women make up almost half of the workforce. You’d think more would have changed as equal representation climbed in the workforce over the last 70 years, with women’s labor force participation climbing from 32.7 percent in 1948 to 56.8 percent in 2016. And yet, only 1 in 5 C-Suite leadership roles are filled by a woman, and only 1 in 30 C-Suite level leaders are women of color.

Young girls playing satirical game glass ceiling

One barrier many women have identified as a factor in the low promotion rate and access to opportunity is that they receive less advice from managers and senior leaders on how to move up the corporate ladder or receive access to capital. Think about that insidious boys’ club access, where men connect at golf courses, bars, and meetings as “one of the guys.

What are women in leadership roles to do besides throw a ladies’ only bonding event?

The Trip

In March, Pat Welch received an email and a package on the same day. Inside the package was a Dopp kit, a copy of Headstrong by Rachel Swaby, and a personalized invitation from the Freshwater Trust to a four-day glamping-style rafting trip on the Salmon River with 24 other women leaders. The invitation list read a bit like a who’s who of the Portland business community.

“I was all in from the start,” Pat said. “It was such a thrill to be included on that list.”

The group had their first meeting a few months later. They started the session by mapping their home rivers, and getting a sense of where they were from. Their companies and work didn’t make the agenda. Instead, the group focused on two questions:

“What do you like the most about yourself?”
“What do you fear about this trip?”

women falling out of raft

The members also formed committees, responsible for items such as fromage and chocolates, each with a budget to provide the necessary local and artisanal treats for the trip. Participants were also asked to select two bottles of their favorite wines to share during the week.

Lastly, the group discussed ground rules for the trip. Although there were quite a few offers, they decided, after some discussion, to leave behind reporters and photographers, recognizing the importance of bonding and creating a “cone of silence” that would allow them to be truly open and authentic.

The women took off in a few private planes at 4:30 AM on August 6, and were on the Salmon River before midday. The next few days were a blur of Class II-IV rapids, freshly grilled vegetables and meats (paired with wine, of course), warm sandy beaches, and real and deep conversations about what it means to be a woman, mentoring, business, raising capital, and life experiences. There was even an impromptu karaoke night.

Emma stone singing

The group members represented a diverse mix of sectors and industries. They also varied in age – from 29 to 68. The commonalities? “Gales of belly laughs,” Pat declares. “You came off the water with 24 new best friends.”

Pat explained why this trip was so different for most of the women: “I’ve been on other women-only trips before, with friends and smaller groups. However, those were with people I already knew. This was an opportunity to really connect with people. There were no cell phones, no service at all. You really got to know everyone. And the river is just so beautiful, and we learned a lot about conservation efforts. The combination was very, very spiritual.”

What They Learned

1. Always take each other’s calls.

“There was a lot of conversation during the trip about mentorship. It didn’t matter if you were older or younger – it’s important to always be there for each other,” Pat explains.

Up to 48 percent of female founders reported a lack of suitable mentors and business advisors that limited their professional growth, probably because so many of these traditional sources of mentorship are male. After this trip, there are 24 more women with mentorship and support.

Leslie knope saying

2. Raise awareness about the struggles women entrepreneurs face.

Only 30 percent of businesses are owned by women. However, these women-owned firms have grown at 1.5x the rate of other businesses.

With that kind of success, you’d think there would be plenty of female entrepreneurs. However, did you know that 94 percent of decision makers at venture capital firms are men? And that only two percent of venture capital funding goes to women? (And knowing who the decision makers are, are we really surprised?)

 women saying

That’s only one of the barriers women leaders and founders face. Raising awareness and challenging the status quo will hopefully help dismantle barriers to success for women.

3. Try to connect without distractions.

Because we all listen a little better when we don’t have our phones out.

Jennifer Lawrence saying