While Women's History Month may be behind us, we’re keeping the celebrations going, honoring the achievements of female leaders across the events industry.
I had the opportunity to speak with Monique Ruff Bell, Head of Conferences for TED. With more than two decades of experience, we sat down to learn from her journey and experiences on navigating gender, race and equality within her career and her ascension into leadership roles.
We will uncover how she persevered through the existing socio racial barriers in growing her career and how fellow women of color leaders can empower the next generation in breaking down race and gender barriers.
Our conversation was filled with laughs, wisdom, and honest reflection—I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
So tell me about Ted, how did you get here? How did you get into the event industry overall?
“I have been in events for my entire career, that's about twenty two years. I got into events from an internship in college, I was doing marketing as my major and I didn't know which field I wanted to go into. Eventually, I found this small African-American owned media and events company based in Manhattan and became an intern, fell in love with event production and focused on this career post graduation.
I've done every possible job you can think of within the events field. From being a marketer to doing sponsorship, meeting planning, production, operations and then content. Content became my sweet spot and I focused more on being a content producer which then helped me grow into leadership positions.
Because of my breadth of experience within events, I was recruited into TED to be their Head of Conferences. I chose TED as my next opportunity because of its strong brand, its focus on inspiration and impact, and I wanted to work with a company that complimented my values. My previous positions were very much commercially minded and now I get to be in a position where impact matters just as much as profit. That is something I am very excited about.”
Can you walk me through your day to day?
“There are various areas that you have to concentrate on. I still think to this day, my mother really doesn't understand what I do (laughs). Many people outside B2B or B2C event production think our job is to basically order the food, get some signage, make things look pretty, and get people on stage with a microphone in front of them. Then bam, you have an event. That's what they THINK a conference is, but it’s literally a gazillion times more complex than that. I have a team of people who have to worry about operations and logistics, another team focused on getting people to your event via marketing efforts, then we have to fund that event through ticket sales and sponsorships. Those take additional teams. You have to understand what type of products you need to attract the type of sponsorship you need.
Product development is a very strategic skill. Then you have to worry about the content and getting the right speakers, as content is the heartbeat of any show. So you really have to care about the type of voices you're putting on those stages. I need to manage all those components in my day to day.”
Which event did you do that made you have that “aha” moment that content was your sweet spot?
“The Direct Marketing Association is where I really started to get into content. Just seeing how enthusiastic people were once they heard a dynamic speaker, and the way they talked about how they were going to utilize what they just learned in their day to day got me pumped and excited.
To know that content can be a game changer for someone personally and professionally brings me joy. It helped produce a sense of accomplishment within myself that all of that hard work, time and effort truly brought people together and provided value to them. That feeling kept me in content for a good while, and then I was like, OK, I'm ready for my next adventure, and that was leadership.”
Being a black woman in this space, how did you navigate a world dominated by people who did not look like you? Especially trying to get into more leadership roles?
“Well, you have to understand when you are a black woman, or any person of color looking into leadership roles within corporate environments, you will probably not see many people that look like you. There is a lot of conscious and unconscious bias out there and even something as basic as people bringing in their own network to their new position, in which that network tends to look like themselves. So it's a struggle for us a lot of the time to get noticed when dealing with those challenges. Before I got more strategic about my job search or building my personal brand to attract the positions I was looking for, I focused primarily on just doing a good job. But just focusing on that only led to more work, not promotions. Because of this I knew I had to focus more on what it would take to get notice, what environments or companies I could thrive in, and who could help me. I knew I had to really start putting in more effort into creating more opportunities for myself because nobody was going to ever care about my career more than me.”
“I had to be more strategic about the people that I needed to connect with that understood my value. Most people don’t realize that your career progression within an organization is mostly decided when you're not in the room. So what type of reputation do you have and who can be your best advocates? I needed to not only focus on mentorship, but sponsorship as well. When I talk about sponsorship versus mentorship, mentors are people who can offer really great advice and direction but a sponsor is actually opening doors for you. They are showing you, giving you or connecting you to opportunities. Having both a mentor and sponsor was integral to getting into my leadership positions.”
In your experience, how does the event industry treat gender? Do you think there's a difference between white and black women? Or more male and female?
“Many leadership positions within events are either dominated by white males with a second layer being white women, especially if it’s large trade shows or commercially revenue driven events. Outside of the association world, people of color leading high profile event brands are rare or few and far between. So for me there isn’t a lot of representation in this area, so I knew I wanted to focus on being the change I wanted to see.
There is so much untapped talent out there from black and brown folks within this industry, and they just need the opportunity to shine and thrive. When these bigger brands look for talent, it seems they want a candidate to check all their wish list boxes when it’s a person of a color but may be more lenient to others that simply “show potential”. Sometimes we aren’t given the opportunities to show that we can check all those boxes and more due to biases. So my focus has been on mentorship and sponsorship and being a help to people within this industry. I have a few mentee’s that I get to help direct and share experiences with so they understand how to navigate these types of environments more strategically.”
Who's inspired you to get here? Were there event leaders, women specifically? Do you have a top five that have inspired you?
“I would say Ursula Burns is one I talk about a lot where she was the CEO of Xerox, just because she exuded authenticity, even in a CEO position. I felt like Ursula's personality was probably the same at work or at home, she just feels like she keeps it all the way real. Now I don't know her personally, but she just comes across that way to me.
Authenticity is just so important to me. I remember being in certain corporate environments and bringing my best self to the table, but still holding back a little bit of myself because of being told I must act a particular way for people to see I was “one of the good ones”. Then I would see others who did not put that much time or energy into being “one of the good ones” being elevated and promoted. And after a while you get exhausted with putting on the face of your representative every day and still not get noticed. So I ditched the representative and just decided to be me 24/7, which is perfectly fine and did not stop my ascension one bit!”
What's one of the things that you kind of wish you could tell your old self, if you could go back?
“I would say that the challenges and uncomfortable blips in your career, the things that felt like failures, were all learning opportunities and made you better at how you think and what you do. They did not break you. They did not stop you. It was simply a way to grow, and you grew a lot whenever you had to face fear, failure or a challenge. Sometimes when you're in that moment, you can't see that you can come back from that stuff. I've tried different things within events and some things I really liked and some things I didn't. Sometimes I skipped steps while trying to get into these leadership positions that didn’t always work out for me and it made me pivot and slow down a bit to take my time to really grow into leadership. All my choices were the right choices regardless if it felt like it or not at the time.”
What's one piece of advice you would give women trying to get into this industry?
“My advice for women leaders within this industry is that they should mentor and teach as much as possible. Showcase how this industry can be an exciting, fun and viable career. A lot of people fall into events, you rarely hear someone say, “I want to be a conference producer when I grow up” or anything like that (laughs). We need to talk about how to survive and thrive in this industry to college students, young adults and those looking for a career change. And we should go beyond just production, and focus on the pursuit of leadership and the business of events. To bring up more diverse leaders, we have to find them and train them up as best we can.
For those just entering the field, my advice is to learn as much as possible. Don’t just get stuck in one skill within events. Learn how to understand various revenue models and how to create profitable events. Understand the sales process and product creation. Figure out what’s the best way to create impact and create engaging experiences. And study people management. It's good to learn different elements of events before picking a specific lane. You don’t know what you don’t know, so give yourself time and space to figure it out.”
So now that you're in TED and just with all your experience, especially during COVID, how do you see the “old normal” versus the “new normal”? What are spaces that you think need to be addressed more or need some tweaking?
“I think if you've been in the events field for a decade or more, when the pandemic hit you couldn't stand the fact that you couldn't put on live events and you probably hated virtual (laughs). Veterans like us thrive off of in-person interaction because that is what we do day in and day out for years. We longed to see all the blood, sweat and tears we put into our creativity come to life. Our younger team members weren’t new to virtual environments so the pivot may have been a bit difficult but they were much more flexible and more willing to learn new things to keep things moving. Continuing this mashup up of virtual and live experiences will continue to evolve and become foundational for most events, if it wasn’t before.
My particular focus is how to create wonderful creative experiences in virtual environments that don't fall flat. I also care about what the Metaverse will look like for events, how to implement more VR experiences and overall how events will thrive in Web3. How can we showcase what we do live in all of those environments. I’m caring more and more about stuff like that and figuring out what event excellence looks like in those areas.”
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