This leadership conference featured a speech by Carly Fiorina…and naked women?
When mountaineer, author and frequent speaker Alison Levine walked in to the reception for the Young Presidents Organization 2015 Central U.S. Conference in a Miami museum earlier this month, she was expecting a relaxing evening of cocktails and small talk. Instead, she found herself staring at a group of all-but-naked women, whose bodies were being painted on by reception attendees.
Levine was one of the featured speakers at the conference, which also included a keynote by Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina. A Fiorina spokesperson says the candidate left the conference the day before the Oct. 10 reception. The event was run by the central region of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), which includes chapters from the upper midwest.
In a statement, YPO said it “does not endorse the events that any of our individual chapters independently organize, but we do believe we grow as leaders by providing a diversity of learning opportunities and experiences.”
Speaking to Fortune, YPO CEO Scott Mordell says, “The organizers had a lapse in judgement. It was a little too risque, it’s inappropriate… They did it with good intentions and I know they feel bad about it in context.”
YPO is a non-profit group that describes itself as “the world’s premier peer network of chief executives and business leaders.” According to Mordell, the group’s mission is to “create better leaders through education and idea exchange.” Mordell say YPO has roughly 23,00o members in more than 130 countries.
In order to join, applicants must have attained a “qualifying title,” such as CEO, chair, or executive director of a company with at least $12 million in revenues before the age of 45. Eight percent of the organization’s members are women. According to Bloomberg, former members include Charles Schwab, Intuit co-founder Scott Cook, and former AT&T CEO Dave Dorman.
Levine, who has spoken at YPO events before, says she was shocked to enter the reception, which was held at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, and see women in lingerie hula hooping in front of the stage where a musician was preforming. Even more upsetting, she says, were the young women who were walking through the crowd, naked except for a g-string, holding paint palettes. Attendees were painting on the women’s bodies. (More details on Levine’s experience below.)
Levine decided to tweet her disapproval.
Others on Twitter quickly jumped in.
Mordell responded to the Twitter conversation.
YPO declined to put Fortune in touch with any organizer responsible for the entertainment at the reception. One of the two Central U.S. regional chairs returned our call, saying that he did not attend the event and has no knowledge of who planned it. A preliminary version of the conference agenda shared with Fortune describes the Pérez museum event simply as “social.”
One member of the conference planning committee, who asked not to be identified, said the painted women were “a surprise to everybody” and noted that the group had made it a point to seek out female speakers for the event. (According to the agenda, two of the five speakers were women.)
Alison Levine sent Fortune a detailed rundown of her experience at the event. Here’s how she describes walking into the reception:
I’d wandered into the wrong event—or so I thought. Across the courtyard, several women dressed in skimpy black lingerie were hula-hooping in front of a stage where a band was playing
“Oops! I must have stumbled into a bachelor party,” I thought to myself as I watched these women gyrating in their bras and panties. But as I turned around to backtrack, I noticed that the people surrounding me were wearing YPO nametags. And what caught my eye next made the lingerie-clad hula hoopers look like they were dressed for one of my polar expeditions. All-but-naked women walked through the crowd wearing nothing but brightly colored body paint and translucent G-strings. These young ladies were holding paint palettes as men enthusiastically painted their names or initials on the women’s bodies. It was like one of those really uncomfortable scenes from The Wolf of Wall Street—except these weren’t a bunchy of shady, misogynistic brokers, they were successful business leaders who were attending their regional YPO conference. I was completely dumbfounded.
I walked around just trying to wrap my brain around what was going on. Was everyone there okay with this “entertainment?” Was I the only one who thought this was hugely inappropriate? I walked past a table of YPOers and overheard a woman telling the people she was sitting with that she was very uncomfortable with these near-naked women walking around. She said it felt degrading. Carly Fiorina was not at the reception, but had she been there, I seriously doubt she would have picked up a paintbrush.