We created History - The making of the first ever Digital Women Economic Forum. July 25th and 26th 2020.
So many experiences these power packed 2.5 months! It was on the D Day I decided to document the details so that these memories are recorded. Might be useful for someone, someday!
A description of the preparations, the event and post event.
One week has gone by since the successful completion of WEF and we are almost done now with the post-WEF work. After intense months of hyper activity, now is the time to bask in fulfilment which surely comes after a job well done.
It is with that fulfilment that I'm sitting behind my work desk at home, to recount and share all those moments we had in planning, organizing and conducting the first ever Digital Women Economic Forum. Hectic, yet incredibly happy, moments.
How it all began:
It was early May, when the whole world had long accepted the reality of "digital-only" conferences during the pandemic, when talks started about a Digital Conclave hosted by All Ladies League (ALL), Bangalore. The beacon light of the talks, like she was for the Women Economic Forum (2018), Chennai, was Lakshmi Shankar, the All India Chairperson of Diversity and Culture, All Ladies League.
Dr Harbeen Arora, the Global Chairperson was very excited about the prospect of a Digital Conclave, and suggested that it should be planned on a grand scale under the banner of the Women Economic Forum, Bangalore. The core team was formed. The series of daily Phone calls, zoom calls, and Whatsapp messages began. The theme came from Harbeen.
Reconnect. Reboot. Reset.
Re-Energising The Enterprises In The New World.
There are usually two kinds of speaking opportunities at the Women Economic Forum:
We began by first putting together the verticals – Manufacturing, Diversity and Culture, Digital Transformation, EdTech, MSME and many more. Then the search for speakers began.
We started adding all the prospective names to a spreadsheet which was beautifully colour coded by Sandhya – Green meant "Confirmed", Red meant "Yet to Confirm", and Yellow meant "Confirmed but not received details". As expected, we had to lay our hands on this list every single day till the last week. Since the speakers were from all over the world, we had to take timezones into account, check each speaker's local time and fix session timings accordingly. So, while one of us did that, the other updated the excel and the third person made sure whether the names were sufficient or more names were needed.
Digital Platform, the Search begins:
While this was going on, we also started looking about for digital platforms to host the conference – the sole engine on which we would run the whole show. We tested multiple platforms. A big time MNC offered to do the event for free as part of its free policy for NGOs. Archna Gupta was added to the core team as she had recent experience in Digital Conferences. We had many meetings with the very courteous MNC team and were handheld by a team from Coimbatore to register for the Digital Conference, which in itself was a long-drawn task.
We were excited, and admittedly tempted, that such a reputed company was offering the platform for free, since we were starting from zero budget with the advent of any sponsors downright dim and dismal.
The wait began for approval and it was only in early June we realized that we could not wait for the approval any longer. We could still have hoped for the best and things might just have worked out with the MNC, but then we'd also be setting ourselves for a disaster – a great host of speakers and attendees we amassed through hard work, and no platform to host them in.
With COVID in full swing, all businesses were hurting. All the doors we knocked didn't yield anything positive. We started looking at other vendors. Khushboo Gupta, an ALL member, Bangalore, from a company called Resonate arrived on the scene and things started looking up instantly.
The big time MNC, while not having helped our cause in time, had sown the seeds of multiple simultaneous sessions. We had seen that it was possible to have 10 simultaneous tracks. So we decided to increase the parallel tracks to 10 tracks with 1 topic every half hour. Which made it as 320 topics in total over the 2 days! Mind boggling for our audience. Scary for us. Girl, what do we love more?
Topics and Speakers:
Another team from Bangalore began brainstorming parallel topics and within 10 days the topics were ready. A few samples:
With Resonate in as our Partner for the Digital Platform, it was decided to have 7 simultaneous tracks for two days (for more than 7 tracks we had to pay more, which at that time was not at all possible). We had already planned 10 tracks for each of the 2 days, now the huge task of breaking it up into 7 per day started. Again the 4 of us (Lakshmi, Sandhya, Raj and me) sat through many zoom meetings which stretched for hours each day, and finally it was almost ready.
Website and Payment Gateway:
If the platform was the engine, the payment gateway was the fuel hose. My company, LBN Tech Solutions had started exploring payment gateways earlier in the process and a recent but popular gateway was chosen as the best for both International and Domestic payments. Easier said than done.
This popular payment gateway never approved our request till the end, and kept asking for document after document. PayPal seemed easier and the approvals came in faster compared to the other payment gateway. So PayPal it was.
The WEF website was done in Wordpress and LBN was supposed to do the payment gateway integration. But again we faced several challenges, and finally after a wait of several precious days waiting for the Delhi team to complete the Registration form, LBN decided to do the Registration form as well as the payment integration supported with an Admin panel. Thanks to LBN's Venkat and Valanteena, the WEF form and the payment gateway as well as the admin panel worked absolutely well without any hitch throughout. The fuel hose was set.
Meanwhile, hectic activity was going on to fill the speaker slots - sending emails and replying to prospective plenary speakers, industry leaders, and thought leaders. While acceptance mails kept coming in, it was decided that we must start the social media promotion. And for that we needed to start the flyers design. A team was formed to create templates for plenary and parallel speakers, and a team for posting on social media under Luvena Rangel was formed, who waited with rolled up sleeves. Calls started coming in from various luminaries showing their interest to participate in the WEF Digital.
The day after the website was ready, which was early July, registrations started pouring in. Dr Harbeen Arora, the global chairperson of All Ladies League and WEF had sent several emails to her database of people all over the world. The email had my phone number as well as Lakshmi's as points of contact for the conference, and so the endless phone calls began!
Delegates also started pinging on Whatsapp and my days became longer and were filled with intense activity. I used to pick up the laptop and work continuously throughout the day with breaks to feed the family with lunch and tea. It was either replying to hundreds of emails from all over the world or attending to phone calls or checking on PayPal registrations or convincing people that PayPal payment is actually very easy (and "yes, you can pay through your debit card, or Credit card")…
Still there were people insisting on doing direct payments to the bank and since Kaizen Consult was the company connected to the payment gateway, we gave bank details to many who transferred the conference fee of Rs 5000 or $100 for overseas directly to the bank.
The hitch is that it cuts off the information flow that comes with the online registration and payment. With direct payments, you'll have to take each payment and manually stitch it together with the registration information. Escalates very quickly.
We had requested these parallel speakers to either email the information so that we will know the topic they chose and their profile, or send details through another form which LBN specially created for parallel speakers who did bank payments. The goal was to ensure each speaker's details were added to the database. Easier to keep track right, if stored in a database.
Just in case we didn't have enough twists along the way, there were several people who wrote to us in Spanish! Thanks to Google I was able to translate and send suitable replies.
These were the typical issues people faced/asked:
- I don't know where the topics are
The website was not really good on mobile, so people had to scroll right (yes, sideways) to actually view the topics. They were talking about this page. www.wef.org.in/wef-bangalore-2020-program-details/
- Is there a discount? I cannot pay.
- Will I receive the WEF Award? Do I have to pay more for the award?
- Can I suggest a new topic?
This I accepted and added to the list.
- I want the same topic two other people have chosen? Can I still speak on the same?
We did accept such requests in certain cases and created special slots to accommodate them.
- Is there an award ceremony? When is it? And what do I wear for that? Formals?
It took some effort to answer this with a straight face. Make no mistake, we do get that many of them are not particularly tech savvy, but when you address endless queries in all sizes and shapes, some of them do manage to crack you up. "The award, if you are selected by the Jury, will be announced by the moderator right after you speak, and the eAward will be emailed to you within a week. And No, there is no award ceremony, sorry about that. Since it's all digital we cannot really organize that like an on-ground event"
- Can I share a presentation at the session?
- I would like to change my topic. In error I have chosen one which is at 3 AM in my country!
- I am in the bank. I need Kaizen Consult's address to transfer the fee. And I need it in 5 minutes please.
This is one of those queries that smack you right out of your rhythm, all the colors drained from your face, and make you scramble for nothing in particular.
- I have no clue what topic I should choose? Can you please choose one for me? Or can you choose one which suits by business profile?
And many many more such queries. In fact I used to wake up early to answer these mails, usually sitting on the terrace after my morning walk. Many of the delegates commended me for prompt response.
WEF Learning: I got all the questions documented, wrote answers and put them up on the website. But still questions came. www.wef.org.in/digial-women-economic-forum-wef-2020-faqs/
This FAQ should be put up when the website gets ready and goes live.
Demo videos should be created and uploaded on website. The video was there in the Hubilo platform, but need it on the WEF website as well.
The designing of plenary speakers' flyers began under the guidance of Rajashree and Sandhya, and was done by Leena Chhabra, Pramila Jain and Veera from LBN.
The parallel speakers' flyers were created by a team headed by Archna Gupta with volunteer designers, a big shout out to Vaishnavi who put in great number of hours and a few were created even after the event as speakers still wanted their flyer!
It was a humongous task as a thorough check needed to be done with regard to names (people do get offended if they are misspelt), designations, organization names and the right pics. If all else was found right, Summit would be spelt as Submit! Well, human error is inevitable when we were churning out flyers in 100s.
WEF Learning: To upload an editable template in the website with logo and other details so that speakers can download and create their flyer in minutes. The Gyan came only after the saga was over!
We needed a Technical Host apart from the moderator at every session! This was a revelation which made us all anxious and made our Blood Pressure rise to an all time high. Why? The Technical Host needs to have uninterrupted and high speed Internet, willing to play the part for 12 hours at a stretch (or at least 6 hours), must learn the nuances of turning on and off the recording as well as Live Stream, keeping time and butting in if time exceeds (not easy at all when you do it), take care of Q & A and inform the moderator. Yeah, all the very best.
It was simply next to impossible to find people to do all the above seamlessly so we decided to hire more people from Resonate to perform these tasks even if it amounted to paying more! It turned out to be a great decision on our part. I cannot even imagine the number of issues which might have cropped up with hosts in various places with bandwidth drops, or worse, performing a wrong task!
WEF Learning: Technical stuff MUST be handled only by tech people. This is for the sanity of all concerned. It's well worth that extra buck.
Just a week to go:
The Plenary moderators were already in place. The Parallel moderators were chosen. But it was a Himalayan task to accommodate people at various slots at their available time, without infringing on their own session at a plenary or parallel, which might clash if same slots are chosen. Who would want to end up asking people to be at two places at once, even inadvertently?
Then the training of the moderators began on Zoom. Valid questions were asked and answered. All of them were super excited to do this and these parallel moderators - mostly from Bangalore and a few from Chennai - did exceedingly well in moderating sessions.
WEF Learning: Selection of Moderator Volunteers should be done well in advance and several demo sessions should be had.
A bit about the Digital Platform Hubilo:
Hubilo is a Bangalore based startup and they have this platform which brings the experience of being in a real on ground conference. There is a Lobby where you can chat with people and network. There is a Sponsor-and-Exhibition space where slots are sold to companies to display their products or services. There is an event feed where any member or attendee can post their stories, promote their company, talk about a session, commend a speaker... Well, you can post anything.
There is a separate space for one-on-one meetings and group meetings. You can set up meeting with anyone seeing their profile and at a mutually convenient time slot. If you are a biz owner, then you can introduce yourself to the rest of the people which will be displayed in their notification when they log in.
And of course, the Agenda displayed for the two days - 25th and 26th – with speakers' pictures, their profiles and moderators. The display was very organized and there was a JOIN THE SESSION button for attendees and JOIN AS SPEAKER for speakers against each slot. It took quite a while for the core team to understand and assimilate all these features and seeing this when demonstrated first to us by Khushboo, we understood what Archna Gupta was talking about – The conference experience.
All this of course is great, but how to educate the speakers? Frankly the speakers, many of them, were anxious about the learning curve involved in actually logging in, finding your session and entering the room as a speaker. In fact Anupam Kher, the actor, first refused citing his lack of tech knowledge, but he later consented and his session was a runaway hit.
Lakshmi organized several orientation sessions which spanned various time zones and invited all the speakers to join to understand the platform. Hats Off to her and Sandhya who almost always was there in support for these late night orientation sessions with global speakers.
Day 1: Plenary sessions with invited speakers on Tracks 1, 2 and 3. Tracks 4,5, 6 and 7 were parallel tracks with speakers who paid and got registered.
Day 2: All 7 tracks were parallel speaker tracks running back to back simultaneously.
We had moderators in place for all the plenaries and parallels but realized that we did not have an Emcee for Track 2 and Track 3 for Day 1. The sessions had very important speakers and the chosen moderators were big speakers themselves, so a need for an Emcee arose which we never realized or had thought about earlier. Track 1 was to be handled by the ever efficient, eloquent, and vibrant Mansi. She is a pro as she has handled several on-ground WEFs across the globe. With Mansi at the helm, the event is a sure-fire success. Such is her eloquence, her way with words and her fabulous stage (in this case screen) presence.
With all the shuffling happening with moderators, Khushboo seemed to be at her wits' end and pleaded with us NOT to make anymore changes as everything might fall flat with multiple changes, and errors might creep in. So at a WA conference Lakshmi declared that Mansi will emcee Track 1, Meg will emcee Track 2, Sandhya will do Track 3, and Lakshmi will be the backup person for emergencies. And Thank God she was there as back up as many such incidents happened on both days.
I agreed readily, feeling sorry for Khushboo as I knew very well what would happen if we keep editing moderators in the platforms till the nth minute. I knew I had to put in continuous hours of screen time Emceeing on day 1. So be it. I was game.
WEF Learning: Thoroughly check every single detail which goes into the Digital Platform and as far as possible AVOID making last minute changes. It was highly risky, the way we were altering details again and again, but thankfully nothing untoward happened.
Lakshmi's master stroke was to set up a Command Center at Marriot Hotel, Bangalore with high speed internet. It came with a price tag , but we needed to have this as home Internet may not be reliable. Plus, it would be extremely difficult to coordinate everything behind-the-scenes with each crew member sitting in a remote place.
Ritu Chawla and Priya Vishwanathan accompanied Lakshmi at the command center. LBN had to create a Digital pass with the logo and the event details, as there was a strict lockdown due to COVID19 in Bangalore at that time. Thanks to Veera who created this in 5 minutes flat!
The categories of awards were selected and a very neat spreadsheet was prepared by Lakshmi and Sandhya which had the Speaker, Email ID and the Category of Award. This spreadsheet made LBN's task quite easy post-event, when the LBN team emailed the eAward to the respective award winners.
Since many of the parallel speakers had registered off the website, it was quite a task to dig out the profile, picture and email from the inbox. Veera and Valanteena helped in putting this together and this was compared line by line, person by person with the parallel speakers Excel spreadsheet, which Sandhya sent LBN. The actual creation of the award (soft copy of templates came from the ALL Secretariat) was done by Desigan. Veera would later check it (right after the event) and Dhamodharan would email it to the database one by one manually. The copy of the email was beautifully written with Harbeen's inputs.
The night before:
Nearing midnight we started livestream testing all the 7 channels on Youtube and all 7 Facebook pages. Much gratitude to the team from Bangalore and the team at the command centre, for staying up late to test this all-important crucial task. Everything went as planned. Everything was in place. God please be with us for the next 2 days. Vadamalais due at 4 Anjaneya temples, 2 in Bangalore and 2 in Chennai!
The D Day:
25th July dawned. I decided to make breakfast, lunch and dinner and be done for the day as far as food is concerned. There were many calls from various people asking how to log in, where to go, will there be a separate zoom link, etc., etc. I was answering queries through calls, and even emails, till noon. Then I got dressed in a green kanjivaram sari and matching accessories, and was all set. I had to handhold several people who did not know how to log in. Either they were using an email different from the registered email or their internet bandwidth was too slow... I had to iron out several issues of many people who kept calling continuously.
It was time for the Inauguration. Harbeen inspired ALL with her eloquence and inner beauty which glowed from within. My first session came, I introduced the guests and kept time, watched out for questions being asked in the platform, posted them on Zoom so that the panellists could see and, after their talk, announced their awards. It started at 12 45 PM and went on without a break till 11 PM. Most of the sessions went smoothly except for those anxious moments when the moderator never came, or audio failed and I had to hold fort with the panelists, or when the speakers went on and on forgetting the time. In such cases I had to butt in and actually request them to stop! The Technical Host was instructed to cut the session if time exceeded and, true to their word, they did it! But it did create some ill feeling with some speakers.
At some sessions, especially when the one with the Rajya Sabha MP, Mr KC Ramamaurthy, I kept urging the tech host (in private) to hold on and NOT to cut the session till I announced the awards! Phew.
There were some hilarious moments as well when people, not realizing that they were on Live Camera and that the whole world was watching them on Youtube and Facebook, started chitchatting and making small talk. Most times, I played along as it seemed so natural, but on one occasion, the speakers refused to leave the zoom room as they were busy talking with each other, even after the next set of speakers had already arrived. So I had to politely nudge them out.
Yvette Cozier, a global speaker, arrived but her moderator Rina Patel (also from the USA) never made an appearance. I had no clue what Yvette was going to talk about. I just had to apologize for her Moderator's absence and asked her to narrate her inspiring story to the world!
My next moderating session with Beena Unnikrishnan as the speaker came at 9.15 PM. It went on as planned, thankfully. Beena spoke exceedingly well on Yoginis and Shakthi. The topic was "Unleash the power of the feminine within". At this session, I was supposed to receive the award "Leader of the Decade", but unfortunately, since I was the Emcee and there was no one else to do the honors, I had to skip the announcement of the award! Would have been silly anyway announcing it for myself!
It was 10.45 PM when the last session came to a close.
What a day! Took short breaks to quickly have lunch and dinner in between sessions. At 4.30 PM, I felt invigorated after sipping the coffee Senthil had made for me.
Lakshmi and me had been quickly exchanging notes the entire day on WA about how it was going. The Command Center manned by the Resonate Team had been a beehive of activity.
- Some Speakers kept calling about being unable to enter the platform. Khushboo solved this by giving the zoom link directly, as it was too late to handhold them.
- Speakers at some parallel sessions had arrived, but the moderator was missing. Lakshmi, Sachdev (A saviour of sorts as he moderated multiple sessions, and also saved sessions without moderators) Ritu, Priya and even Lakshmi's husband Ravishankar turned into instant moderators.
Day 2 went fairly smoothly and soon it was time for an impromptu zoom session, "The making of the WEF", starring the entire team who were involved in all the prep activities.
My name was slated for backup for 2 tracks, but thankfully other moderators were available.
4.30 PM was my daughter Shweta's maiden speech . She spoke about Emotional Quotient needed for a Caregiver"
Need 3 Emcees or at least 2 per track. Staring at the screen for 11 hours sure makes one weary and stressful. I am sure Mansi, who is a World Class Pro at Emceeing, on Track 1 and Sandhya, who has the ability to charm everyone with her sweet voice, handling track 3 felt like how I did while I manned Track 2. Wish I changed attire once or twice in between, like how Minkku Buttar did (She moderated several sessions changing 6 outfits... a real whiz at moderation). It never even occurred to me to change. The little time I had, I grabbed food, or sipped coffee. How I wish I had used a few of the lovely saris wistfully sitting unused in the wardrobe for several months for the world to see!
With 412 speakers from 53 countries, 3 world presidents, 52 Corporate World leaders and an event on 7 concurrent tracks for 2 full days, the event was a runaway success. Guinness has contacted us as I believe this sort of conference at such a magnitude is the first ever.
Author: Megalai Senthilkumar, All India Chairperson for Digital Transformation, All Ladies League and Core Conference Team Member