“We need more public spaces that speak to our inner lives.” – Candy Chang, Chang is an artist who creates communal rituals for emotional health.  She is most known for her global project Before I Die

“I wanted to create a company to cater to women’s emotional needs. I decided to lean in and went back to school to be an auto mechanic. I want to reach every woman driver.” Patrice Banks, Founder of Girl’s Auto Clinic

You’ll notice this week’s muse(s) is plural. That’s because I want to highlight the gathering of over 750 energized women who convened at the crowded halls of the Westin Hotel in Princeton last Friday, October 26th, at the NJ Conference for Women.

I love conferences of all kinds for the obvious reasons (exciting connections, possible collaborations, morale-boosting interest in one another’s work etc.). But this all-women’s conference felt especially full of good ideas, good will and “you got this!” fuel.   

There was medicine in the shared laugher and the “yasss” sighs of agreement when the keynote-speakers had the audience nodding their heads and sometimes wiping their eyes. The breakout sessions focused on a range of professional development exercises–and spoke to women’s natural strengths and varied professional backgrounds. There were financial advisors, engineers, therapists, lawyers, beauty consultants, hospital representatives, archivists, yoga leaders, and bankers among many, many more. Throughout the day, there was an emphasis on sharing information and resources that women could draw upon throughout the year.

I wish you could bottle the energy you gain by meeting women in person–listening to game-changers and role models present their work with passion and commitment. But what I especially appreciated about the approach of the Princeton Chamber of Commerce and the Women in Business Alliance who organize the NJ Conference for Women each year is the clear recognition that for women to obtain more positions of leadership –  “a network can change your world.”

Candy Change at her Before I Die wall

Which brings me to the first keynote speaker, Candy Chang who is a TED senior fellow and artist who has spearheaded participatory art projects within public spaces to create greater community health.  Her participatory public art project Before I Die reimagines our relationship with death and with one another in the public realm. The Atlantic called it “one of the most creative community projects ever,” and it has since been created in over 4,000 cities and over 75 countries, including China, Iraq, Argentina, Russia, Haiti, Kazakhstan, and South Africa.

“You can tell a lot about a society by its art,” said Chang, who struggled for a year with depression before she launched the Before I Die project.

“If we ignore our emotional lives, they can build in destructive ways. Be sensitive to your struggles. We should welcome our neuroses. They are arrows that point to wounds. We can use our struggles to help one another.”

In her keynote, Chang talked about how deeply inspired she was by a gardener named Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) Paxton grew the first Giant Water Lily in England, which grew over six feet. Noticing its powerful cross-ribbing structure underneath the leaf, Paxton wanted to test its strength. To do so, he placed his own child on the leaf and when it held firm, he added several additional children. The leaf held the weight! That model led to Paxton’s architectural design of the Crystal Palace which he presented to the World Fair in 1851.

Chang was awestruck by the open-mindedness of Paxton’s work in drawing parallels between disciplines and the way he copied the natural design of a leaf to inspire an architectural masterpiece.

But Chang’s story–and deeply motivational keynote– inspired my own parallel  for why I love interviewing women about their paths.  At the heart of my Woman on a Quest series is the drive to connect women’s work behind the scenes and demonstrate the multitude of paths within and toward success. Stories remind us of what’s possible by naming any number of possible paths–and preparing girls and women for the obstacles that inevitably arise along the way–and showing the ways those obstacles might be overcome. Gigantic water lilies look gentle, they float and yet underneath their peaceful layers of soft leaves, they are surprisingly strong.   

Girl Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide book cover

Another speaker who really stood out to me for her strong presence–and goal to serve women emotionally and pragmatically–was Patrice Banks, an entrepreneur who is opening up the male-dominated automotive industry to women.  She reached me with her passion about the importance of STEM education and her thoughts on the empowerment of women. Banks noticed a profound lack of attention to women’s emotional needs in the auto industry–and developed a powerful business model around that need.

“I thought I needed a guy to help me with my car. I wondered how I could educate myself and other women? But when I tried to google a female mechanic, I couldn’t find any,” noted Banks. “Now, they find me.”

“We treat our cars like our bad exes treated us,” Banks smirked to a laughing audience as she described the benefits of regular oil changes. “Your car is in constant communication with you. You have to listen.”  (By the way, I did check my last oil change after Banks talk…. I was 100 miles overdue!)

Banks summed up her manifesto for Girl’s Auto Clinic in her talk. “I wanted to educate and empower women. Women spend 200 billion dollars on cars. Women make 95 percent of car buying decisions. There are more female drivers on the road then men…. I wanted to be there for women. I wanted to use cars to empower women. I wanted to create a safe place for women to ask questions.  No more…’I know this is a stupid question.’”

The NJ Conference for Women began in 2012 and has grown to become the largest women’s conference in Central NJ. While I was looking forward to this conference,  I did not expect the range of topics covered, the number of meaningful networking conversations nor the deep inspiration of every keynote speaker and breakout sessions, which I am sure I will blog about more in the future.  

A big thank you to the Princeton Chamber of Commerce for a day to remember!  


The Women in Business Alliance Committee manages the NJ Conference for Women, the State’s premier networking, educational, and inspirational event for over 750 women. The conference provides a forum to promote an environment for women to connect and build relationships. The conference began in 2012 and has grown to become the largest women’s conference in Central NJ and has sold out each year. To learn more or reserve your spot to this year’s conference, visit njconferenceforwomen.com.