When a friend emailed to ask if I wanted to join her for a two-day professional women’s retreat, enthusiastic was not my immediate reaction. As someone who works mostly (and enjoyably) alone, the idea of spending 36 hours surrounded by other people sounded worse than a dental cleaning. Throw in the fact that it was ninety minutes away in the woods – “thanks, but no thanks” was my impulse response. But then I remembered that New Year’s resolution line item I had made months ago to take more risks (along with practice random acts of kindness, exercise more and make my bed). I wasn’t exactly winning at any of the things. It turns out the event was happening at the historic Millcroft Inn & Spa which has two swimming pools, hot springs and more than a few wood burning fireplaces. My pal offered to share her room, meals were included, and I soon ran out of reasons why it was a bad idea. I quickly RSVP’d before I could talk myself out of it (they pretty much had me at ‘spa’).
So on a sunny fall Friday, I packed a bag, picked up my rental car and headed to the rolling hills of Caledon, Ontario. Co-founded in 2015 by Avery Swartz (the CEO of a tech workshop company) and Sarah Hunter (who runs a creative digital studio), Gather North is an annual retreat for “women who make the web”, including designers, developers, bloggers, and everyone in between. Avery and Sarah curate their event with a great deal of thought. Only forty women are invited, and this is no dull and dry tech conference. Instead, it’s a weekend of learning (and laughing) with inspiring speakers, good food and some well-appointed swag.
On the first night, after meeting my friend and checking into our massive two-story Croft room, we joined up with forty cool, funny and crazy-smart women for drinks, dinner, and a series of five-minute, motivational Lightening Talks. One profiled a silver screen actress who invented the first jam-proof radio guidance system, another revealed the emotional challenges faced by a first time mother, and a third compared creative writing with the art of coding. This wasn’t going to be an ordinary weekend.
Saturday’s events were even more inspiring. After a hearty group breakfast, things kicked things off with a talk called: Nobody Knows What They’re Doing: Inside Stories From A Tech Entrepreneur (it turns out even successful people are winging it, you just need to “find your tribe”). Next, a financial planner made investing seem a lot less terrifying by describing bonds as “the LBD of portfolio management”. A career coach proffered solid advice on how to negotiate salary without sounding whiny, and a Minneapolis-based tech CEO gave a kick-ass talk on finding work-life balance by letting go of guilt and getting good at confrontation (this one involved some well-placed swearing and a whole lot of cheering). The day was filled with sage words of encouragement, professional guidance and pivotal life-changing advice. But a gal can only experience so many major ‘aha moments’ before she needs a break, it was time to hit the spa.
Set in a former textile mill, the ivy-clad Millcroft Inn & Spa is nestled in 100 acres of beautiful woodland. There are chakra balancing massages and oxygen infused facials to choose from, but what’s really fantastic is the property’s year-round hot springs. For the ultimate experience you can circuit between a salt-water swim, the polar plunge pool and the 40 C hot tub. The air was cool and the hot springs extra steamy as a bunch of us Gather Northeners closed out the weekend with wine and a final soak.
When I got back home at the end of the weekend, I was tired but blissful. I’d found my “tribe” and felt like I could take on the world. OK, maybe not the entire world but definitely a few projects I’d been putting off. I went through some of the photos posted on social media. ‘Best. Conference. Ever.’ someone wrote. I couldn’t have said it better. What I’d worried might be an awkward couple of days turned out to be an inspiring weekend that changed my perspective on life, career and everything in between. It turns out getting out of my comfort zone and spending 36 hours with the same people was actually pretty darn great. I might even start making the bed.