First ever Women's Conference of Florida to address issues with big-time speakers in Tampa


While working on campaigns and in administrations for Florida governors from Jeb Bush to Charlie Crist to Rick Scott, Arlene DiBenigno realized pretty quickly that politics was a male-dominated arena.

During her 30-year career working with Bush, she served as the director of appointments for boards and commissions. There she learned just how hesitant women were to accept prestigious roles, like a governor-appointed seat on a board of directors.

"I would reach out to women who were extremely qualified to serve on a board, those that had done so much for their communities and the first thing they'd say would be 'I don't know if I can do it,' " DiBenigno said. "Compare that to the men I'd ask to serve and they'd say 'Sure, when do I start?' "

DiBenigno, who is now the managing partner of Conversa, a Tampa marketing firm, is hoping to help change that at the inaugural Women's Conference of Florida this month.

The first ever statewide conference for female leaders, entrepreneurs, business women and spokeswomen will take place May 19 and 20 at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina. Aside from networking and panel workshops, the conference has a long list of high-profile female speakers, including Randi Zuckerberg, former Facebook executive and CEO of Zuckerberg Media; Jill Abramson, the first woman to serve as the executive editor of the New York Times; and Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir turned Academy Award-nominated film Wild.

The Tampa Bay Times caught up with DiBenigno, who is the CEO and president of the Women's Conference of Florida.

Why do you think now is a good time for this conference?

It's the year 2016. Two women were running for president. But there are still so many issues that are impacting women. We've been talking about this stuff for years. As women, we're second-guessing ourselves and overworking ourselves. We have a hard time helping each other. There's so much talent in this state. It really seems like a perfect time to bring these women together to help one another and really tackle this big issue of why we worry so much. But with two women having run for president this year, on both sides of the aisle, it's really brought the equality conversation to the forefront. But what we aim to do is to keep it there constantly.

What makes this conference different from other women leadership events in Florida?

The difference is this is a statewide event. We're bringing women to Tampa from Orlando, Miami, Jacksonville and everywhere in between. Sometimes when we're so involved in our own communities we forget what's happening around this big state. This conference will offer a great opportunity to network, to hear each other's stories and talk about new, innovative ideas.

So why Tampa?

The goal is to have the conference move around every year, but Tampa has an incredible amount of talent here. It's perfect for our first conference. The city is on the cusp of so much change that will bring about new programs and opportunities. I've met so many incredible young women here, young professionals looking for those kind of opportunities.

You've got a pretty star-studded lineup of speakers. How did you manage that?

Most of the speakers are coming because of personal relationships. Our board was able pick up the phone and call some of these women and others were able to raise the dollars we need to put this together. It's been a lot of fun to work together to get it to this point.

Tampa Bay Times