Robust energy and enthusiasm, the unmistakable trademarks of PPAI’s Women’s Leadership Conference, were highly palpable—even virtually—as the popular event got under way on Monday with 127 women in attendance, including 56 first-time attendees.

Since 2005, the annual event has drawn a huge following of women at all professional levels from companies across the industry and, after a tumultuous 2020 in which the event had to be cancelled, attendees were thrilled to be reunited, even on a virtual platform.

The conference opened on Monday with a thought-provoking session, “Dream It. Make It Happen,” presented by Geiger CEO Jo-an Lantz, MAS, one of the original founders of WLC, a former PPAI board chair and PPAI Hall of Fame inductee among her many other achievements. During the hour-long session, Lantz shared some of her own realized dreams, along with seven fundamental lessons she learned from an interview series she did last year. The series included interviews with PPAI’s former President and CEO Paul Bellantone, CAE; Steve Smith, CEO of L.L. Bean; Lindsey Fry, an Olympic Silver medalist in ice hockey; and Meb Keflezighi, an Eritrean-born American long-distance runner and the only athlete in history to win the Boston Marathon, the New York City Marathon and an Olympic medal. To make dreams a reality, she encouraged listeners to adopt these seven steps: take the time to dream; change their daily ritual, invest in themselves through time, education and money; share their dream with their own social network of friends and colleagues; be held accountable for achieving the dream; set a deadline and, when the dream is realized, express gratitude and appreciation for those who helped to support it.

The session was followed by a data-filled update on PPAI and the promotional products industry from PPAI Interim President Bob McLean, CPA, CAE, CEM, which included insights from PPAI’s quarterly surveys of supplier and distributor companies.

Monday afternoon, Paula Wygonik, MAS, president of CE Competitive Edge, LLC, presented a powerful and moving session, “Girl Grit … The Story Of Trials And Triumph Powered By (S)heroes, Courage And Endurance,” in which she recounted four tragic life events that could have completely derailed her life but, because of the way she approached each one, made her stronger each time. “How do we get through the hits in life that keep on coming?” she asked as she began her talk. “Oftentimes, people are waiting for them to stop and—news flash—they may not stop, but there can be breaks in between them and you do have the ability to learn from them, triumph over them and move on. Then, hopefully encourage and coach others along the way.”

The day wrapped up with roundtable discussions where attendees shared ideas and takeaways from the day. At 6 pm CT, the virtual platform reopened with the PPAI Woman of Achievement Award presentation recognizing this year’s recipient, Mary Jo Tomasini, MAS+, CEO of CE Competitive Edge, LLC (see the separate story in this issue).

“WLC on Day One did not disappoint. With a virtual event, you always worry about the ability to connect in the same way, but I was pleasantly surprised with how connected I feel to our community with industry friends both old and new,” says WLC Co-chair Kelli Denes, MAS, director of business development at The Vernon Company. “The feedback on the industry from speakers has been very positive and they really connected us to their message and delivered content I will be personally drawing on in my future goal-setting. The industry insight with Bob McLean helped us to connect with what most of us are seeing as our industry comes back, and the print outs were full of useful data that we can share with our teams. The celebration of Mary Jo Tomasini was the finishing touch on our opening day. It is always rewarding to celebrate someone so gracious and deserving. I am excited for Day Two and encourage everyone to take the time to be social in the platform.”

Throughout the agenda today and Wednesday are multiple speaker sessions and roundtables designed to educate, inform and empower attendees, and this evening attendees will come together for virtual, small-group dine-arounds to continue the networking.

Long-time attendee Renée Jones, CEO of distributor A Creative Touch, Inc., in Wilmington, North Carolina, says WLC is the event she looks forward to most each year. “The power, energy, possibilities, motivation, fun and the friendships that are made or renewed are simply magical. Although this year’s event is virtual, I have the same feelings as being at a live event minus the hugs. A big shout out to the WLC Workgroup and PPAI staff for keeping this event top notch. I’m looking forward to everyone’s favorite event—the virtual dine-around—tonight.”