Why Aligning Who You Are with Your Work Is What the World Needs: My Time at Yellow Conference 2019

In the weeks leading up to the 6th annual Yellow Conference, I was feeling some of the disjointedness that can come from the freelance (or any work) life. The roadmap to clarity seemed out of reach and had left me discouraged, but as I entered the conference aptly themed “Align”, it fell directly in front of me. This year, Yellow challenged the audience to do exactly this: to seek alignment in our lives. Over the two days, founder Joanna Waterfall encouraged us to fully revisit “that thing” within each of us longing to get out. The dream that has sat dormant for too long; the calling that we’ve let slip by.

It’s actually a very tender thing to say in a world bustling with ambition, in a room of incredibly capable, dynamic women – but in reality it is just the place to say it.

This year’s conference theme served as a holistic calling to align who we are – our values, passions, and skills – with all that we do in the world.

After an insightful, encouraging, and admittedly emotional two days, what I saw in myself and fellow attendees was what I returned to Yellow for: rejuvenation.

From hurrying into the brightness of Hudson Loft, grabbing a cup of delicious and necessary Verve coffee, I settled into a seat listening to emcee Ingrid Gonzalez welcome everyone and I remembered: Yellow knows how to set the tone. We were in for something great.

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Entering my second year at Yellow, Day One felt like a homecoming. Walking in felt like returning to the celebration of purpose. Great style ruled the two floors of conference wonderland, but what was deeply palpable is a sense of being surrounded by women who are here to do the work – who are doing the work. These women are here to learn, but they’re already making their vocations something soul-entwined, and not just for comfort, the familiar, or the impressive.

They are here to represent their communities, own their failures, remind each other of their triumphs, and learn something new — or come away sparked by something waiting to be found again.

Perhaps that thing about ourselves, as Yellow welcomed us to revisit, would be the transformative belief that by being who we are and doing what we were created to do, we can change the world.

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After inclusive dance troupe Infinite Flow’s first performance of the conference, Liz Forkin Bohannon, founder of Sseko, opened the speaker series with a manifesto of Beginner’s Pluck; encouraging the idea to dream “small” and fight past the belief that we have to be “special” to make a difference. In her new book, Liz details her journey founding Sseko Designs. Sseko began as a remixed flip-flop design ignited with a passion to help keep young Ugandan women in school and open opportunities for them to pursue career growth. Today, it is an ethical fashion company bridging the gap for talented young women facing a challenging job market, and will be enabling their 131st woman to go to college. In ten years of entrepreneurship, Liz has pretty much gone through it all, and candidly answered our questions about failure, mentorship, and persistence.

Next, Terces Engelhart, founder of Café Gratitude and Gracias Madre stepped up to tell how stories, hopes, and hard work come full circle when taking the rudimentary step of faith towards our endeavors. Dreaming big starts with the first step, as does calling out the best in the people around us.

As Terces shared, “If I call out the best in people, the best will arise.”

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Inspired by our first speaker sessions, what was most special to me was experiencing the conference alongside friends, old and new, who were here for the first time. Knowing how much the education and palpable collective passion affected me last year, I was really excited to see what my friends would draw from it, and how it might turn over new discoveries for them.

During our break, attendees were free to roam the Do-Good Goods Marketplace, the Wellness Loft, the Retreat Room, and for the first time, the Nurture Room; a space specially designed for mothers to nurse and rest. The presence and attention to detail paid to make these rooms beautiful set a tone:

Here, we would regard the whole person, not just our headlining achievements, but everything that makes up our worlds.

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Peeking through the ethically-made, organic cotton goodie bags made in partnership with Parker Clay, there was pretty much no amenity overlooked by the Yellow Co. team as each was filled with items benefiting people and planet. The goodies included nutrient-packed snacks by Lesser Evil, Macrobar, and Right Rice just to name a few, plus plant-powered, non-toxic skincare products from Trilogy, Ursa Major, Goldfaden MD, and Smartypits. Ethical fashion picks included brands such as Go Rings, Mata Traders, and upcycled cotton socks by Richer Poorer. Awaiting breakout sessions, everyone was kept hydrated thanks to eco-friendly, purified Pathwater and caffeinated by sustainable, direct-trade Verve coffee and organic, give-back Teadrops. Upstairs from the Do-Good Goods Marketplace, the Wellness Loft offered good-for-you facials by [Heyday] (https://www.heydayskincare.com/), restorative treatments by Pause, and polished nails by Restore Blank.

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As we reconvened for the next session, attendees could opt to take a deeper moment amongst Samaya’s meditation cushions in a sound bath hosted by Unplug Meditation in the Wellness Loft, or join one of two other breakout sessions. I broke off for Quigley’s social media seminar on reverse engineering Instagram engagement (captions first!), and hopped over to the Align Your Business with Your Values panel hosted by The Good Trade’s founder Amy Ann Caldwell. I headed there with a new friend to hear Beautycounter’s SVP of Social Mission, Lindsay Dahl, Galerie LA founder Dechel McKillian, and Gaia Herbs EVP of Marketing and E-Commerce, Elena Lécué. The women broke down how to hone in on the key values for a brand, and how their companies have practically put their values first, forming methodology, strategy, and consumer interaction around those pillars. “Look for the [values] you can’t do your company without,” said Dechel.

Our group in the Bloom Room asked away, from questions about supply chain, to locations, to career path, to wholesale problem-solving. While I didn’t come in with any specific questions, I came away with a refreshed rubric to view value-driven businesses from women whose experience are showing how it can be done.

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Motivation is palpable when you can see what’s truly possible. The Do-Good Goods Marketplace is a wonderland of brands hand-picked and vetted by Yellow for quality, sustainability, supply chain, environmental impact, and more. Filling the airy first floor of Hudson Loft were tried and true innovators, uncompromising in their values, including everything from non-toxic beauty and supplements by Aether Beauty, Beekeeper’s Naturals, Gaia Herbs, and Further Foods, to ethically-made leather goods and clothing from ABLE, Parker Clay, and HALF UNITED. Another popular spot during our break sessions included the photo booth made in collaboration with Snapbar and designed by Dazey LA, who also created the official conference t-shirt inspired by the Align theme!

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Rounding everyone back up to the main stage, we sat down to hear from International Justice Mission Creative Director Vera Leung, who showed us how IJM pursues dignity and protection for people through their storytelling. “Our stories are better lived in community; change is only possible with all of us,” she said. Modern slavery picks a fight that will take all of us to end. Hope isn’t lost for the ones who are most vulnerable. As Vera shared through one rescued boy’s friendship, his vision for hope ignites hers to tell his story, and many others’, to see IJM’s mission through — ending slavery within our lifetime.

Between Yellow’s New York Conference in May and this one in Los Angeles, Yellow rallied 35 women to commit to give monthly towards IJM’s global efforts as Freedom Partners. In total, this means that the Yellow community will be able to fully fund two complete rescue missions from human trafficking this year, gathering just over $12,000! It was inspiring to see such a tangible example of how people taking action to solve a global issue can truly make an impact.

To end the first day, the screens on the main stage were splashed with a familiar palette of brush strokes and the cadence of encouragement you’ve probably stopped scrolling on Instagram for. Artist, writer, and musician, Morgan Harper Nichols, entered the stage to show us the very beginnings of how a poem with more honesty than she was ready to share took Pinterest by storm, and launched her one-to-one letter writing journey that has proliferated across Instagram. Humble, hilarious, and heartfelt, MHN was the real deal.

And just like that, it was a wrap on Day One! We toasted with sustainably made natural wines by Dry Farm Wines, and snacked on plant-based bites by Beyond Meat and handmade, direct-trade dark chocolates by Eat Chic Chocolates, while browsing the marketplace and enjoying each other’s company.

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Opening the second day again with emotive, beautiful performances incorporating wheelchair dance by Infinite Flow, today, founder and artistic director Marisa Hamamoto revealed how her own recovery from a stroke’s paralysis struck a passion to create a dance company standing for the joyful inclusivity of all races, sizes, ages, genders, and abilities.

In sharing the story of ABLE, founder Barrett Ward made us both laugh and brought us candid truth about the realities of transitioning from a non-profit to a for-profit, reminding us that a do-good business should put the needs of the community they’re serving first before its own vision of accomplishment. In speaking on the challenge for transparency that ABLE is bringing to the fashion industry, Barrett left us with perhaps the most jotted-down quote of the conference,

“You don’t have to be perfect before you can be honest.”

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Next, Dressember founder Blythe Hill challenged us to take what seem like our silly ideas seriously, and to have compassion for the simple, enjoyable activities that connect people naturally. She encouraged us to be mobilized to help others by going outside our bubble, asking what breaks our hearts, and confronting that as a mission.

“Every decision you make can lead to advocacy for other people.”

After so many pages of note-taking, we had much to process just from a few speaker sessions. But before breaking off for lunch, we took a few minutes to reflect and share some personal practical takeaways with seat-mates through questions led by Joanna:

What dreams or goals were stirring for our neighbors? Was there something we had buried, that we now need to step into? “What scares you the most about it?” asked Joanna. “If you took a chance on that dream or goal, what’s the worst that could happen?” The room filled with busy voices. This was a space for messy thoughts and real compassion as we then considered what one initial action step could help move us closer toward a dream.

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For Day Two’s breakout session, my brain really got to work in a session led by FLDWRK’s Director of Programs, Jonathon Murillo, to clarify our mission statement by getting to the bottom of that mission’s “problem statement” – the real reason for the mission’s existence. Taking inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and freshly articulated statements from the audience, the balance he proposed was that between the audacious and the achievable. In that tension is where we create.

A cushion of time allowed a friend and I to compare notes from another breakout session hosted by Ashlee Sikorski. An intermediate Enneagram communication workshop, this one surprised both of us with its focus on the three Enneagram intelligence centers — Heart, Mind, and Body — with each of us practicing another’s primary way of communicating!

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The last two speaker sessions ended our time strong, all of us reuniting to hear from LaRayia Gaston, founder of Lunch On Me, a Los Angeles-based non-profit working for health and mind-body-spirit healing for those experiencing homelessness. Lunch On Me redistributes organic food at risk of being wasted to be served as delicious, quality meals for residents of Skid Row. Convicting and compassionate, LaRayia challenged us to test the purity of our strength of spirit, and to love the vulnerable without reason. “It is a gift to be a powerhouse,” she said. “You can use all of your gifts; you don’t have just one. But start with love.”

To end our time, the amazing artist MILCK (Connie Lim) joined Ruthie Lindsey and Miles Adcox for a live podcast recording of The Unspoken Podcast. Through Connie’s personal artistic journey, the three unraveled universally felt struggles of trauma, communication, growth, and acceptance. There couldn’t be a better picture of the compassion and unity felt as when the room fell silent for MILCK’s song “Quiet”, and filled with harmony as she invited us to join in. That united chorus, “I can’t keep quiet…” will undoubtedly be heard in the missions these women take up.

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It’s a gift and a privilege to have our hands on the wheel, steering our career paths in a way that aligns with our values. Work can be more than something we do to get by or earn recognition for. From Liz, we learned that figuring out how to break the mold isn’t rocket science. From Terces, Morgan, and Blythe, we learned to just take the first step; it will lead you to the next. From Larayia, Barrett, Liz, and Vera, we asked ourselves –

“How can you humbly learn from others about how to truly serve their needs?”

From MILCK, Miles, and Ruthie, we found the confidence to tell the truth of our journeys so we can heal both ourselves and those around us.

“Think about that thing,” Joanna urged in the end, “that thing about yourself you haven’t revisited in a long time.” For me, it means confidently sharing untold stories, and humbly asking for help to grow. What I gained from Yellow 2019 is reinvigorated hope for what’s possible beyond just me and my abilities. I can own my limits and believe in my community’s love and strength to fill where I lack. Relearning this feels like a deep breath, ready to make a new first step.

Feature image by Hayley Scully, additional images by Natalie Crane and Hayley Scully as noted

Melanie Loon

Melanie is a writer and artist in her native Los Angeles. Her words and abstract portraiture discuss communication, emotion, and movement. She’s always hoping the “movement” part includes seeing somewhere new, soon, and she’s more than game to read the dessert menu.