In November, Ladies Get Paid hosted its Get Money Get Paid experience at the Brooklyn Expo Center. A thousand attendees bought the $119 tickets for fireside chats, workshops, and panels that aimed to “focus on the skills you need to get ahead in your career, put money in your pocket, and help other women along the way.”

The event drew more than three dozen sponsors, such as Comcast NBCUniversal, Bumble Bizz, and Smartwater. In an interview following the conference, Ladies Get Paid co-founder Ashley Louise said she wants to be rich, and that part of the Ladies Get Paid mission is making it O.K. for women to talk about personal enrichment. Still, greatly enriching its own speakers hasn’t yet been possible. Louise said that every person who didn’t appear on behalf of a sponsor and spoke at the conference received compensation, most often in the form of a $300-to-$500 speaking fee, even for women who usually command $20,000, because that’s what Ladies Get Paid can afford.

Lauren Brody, author and founder of The Fifth Trimester, which helps new mothers navigate their return to the workforce, earns most of her income from public-speaking fees, which she’s able to do because she says no to a third of the requests she gets—for unpaid jobs. Brody admires the women behind these ventures and tries to educate them about how to pay the women creating content onstage for them.

“But the truth is, if you really, really wanted to be able to pay your speakers, you would be doing it at a venue that costs less, or you would be charging your attendees $10 more per ticket to pay your speakers who are working for you,” she said. As the world continually fails to catch up with the feminist movement, entrepreneurial women are attempting to turn the notion of women’s empowerment into viable business opportunities, with mixed success. But can they really fix what’s broken?

Pay to Play

Ladies Get Paid and its competitors represent the New Wave of such millennial enterprises, but the impulse began with their mothers’ generation. Since 2009, Tina Brown has regularly hosted Women in the World conferences, where for $75 or more a day, attendees can hear from the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Priyanka Chopra. There’s also the Forbes Women’s Summit, sponsored by Uber, among others, that has cost mere mortals $1,495 for two days and where 2018’s attendees also got to hear from Chopra. Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit charged 2019 attendees $13,500, not including travel.

Page-one results of a Google search for “women’s summit” include the World Woman Summit, the World-Changing Women’s Summit, and even the Miami Women’s Summit. Arianna Huffington turned her personal quest to avoid burnout into a Web site and corporate-consulting business called Thrive Global, the ethos of which is that well-rested employees are more productive and able to “unlock their greatest potential.” (Glassdoor reviewers suggest the company may not always follow its own advice, one writing, “It can get intense,” and another that “work will permeate throughout your nights and weekends.”) The “Know Your Value” gospel of Mika Brzezinski, which she has teased in a series of self-help books, has been effectively marketed by her employer; NBC regularly promotes her goods and services by inviting her to appear on Today. The empowerment message is now widely used by the likes of Lululemon to sell clothes and accessories. Ivanka Trump used her “Women Who Work” ethos (and book) to promote her now shuttered clothing line.

Priyanka Chopra at the 2018 Forbes Women’s Summit, in New York.

Figureheads like Huffington have figured out how to turn a version of the female-empowerment movement that corporate America can palatably sponsor into businesses. The audience is mostly women, but men are invited to participate, and, if they choose not to participate, to generally support these endeavors. And women—who are tired of being underpaid and passed over at work in an era where everyone well knows such behaviors continue to happen—are happy to buy their services.

Some classify these start-ups as feminist capitalism, while others see them as opportunism, where the noble cause is brandished as a club and a shield. “Some of these kinds of rah-rah girl-power-in-the-boardroom entities are just a massive scam,” said feminist columnist and lawyer Jill Filipovic, author of The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness. “What’s complicated about it is that gender equality has to operate in our existing eco-system. I don’t think any feminist believes that if we get 50 percent women on corporate boards and 50 percent of women are C.E.O.’s that we will have achieved feminist goals.”

Can a Meetup Be Sexy?

“Movie-character busy” is how Lindsay Kaplan describes the members of Chief, a high-end club and co-working space marketed to high-achieving professional women. She left her job as vice president of communications and brand for mattress company Casper, where she was the first-ever employee, to start Chief two years ago. Her co-founder, Carolyn Childers, got the idea for it from the Young Presidents’ Organization, which claims more than 28,000 C.E.O.’s as members. She figured that if Kaplan, whom she met three years ago at a women’s networking event, could make a mattress sexy at Casper, she could do the same for corporate meetups.

Chief’s Tribeca headquarters is accessorized with books such as Elaine Welteroth’s More than Enough, and it’s painted a deep green, Chief’s signature shade. (It was inspired by the greenrooms where executives are accustomed to having intimate conversations before panel discussions.) Chief has raised $25 million in venture funding, claims nearly 2,000 members, and has a waiting list of nearly 7,000. For dues ranging from $5,400, for a V.P.-level member, to $7,800, for a C-level executive, women gain access to “core groups,” monthly group executive-coaching sessions, and the workspace, which includes a baby-grand piano, velvet furniture, and a bar set with mini-croissants in the morning. Other programming includes off-the-record talks with the likes of Amal Clooney and Barbara Corcoran.

Sixty percent of Chief’s members expense their dues, which makes sense in an era where the idea of wokeness has permeated nearly every sphere of corporate America. And if some companies won’t pay for outside services or hold their own workshops, many are happy to undertake the expense personally for the books, events, and memberships that provide the opportunity to meet other women, learn how to get raises and promotions, and generally feel inspired.

Jean Smart, head of business strategy at UBS, paid out of pocket to join Chief in the spring at the urging of a friend. Smart liked its aesthetics right away, along with its location in Tribeca, “and even the whiskey nights,” she said. “I like to have a cocktail, and it’s not going to be a cosmo.” At a recent meeting of her core group, members went around the room and said both what they wanted from one another and what they could offer to one another, which Smart said she had never before experienced at a women’s networking event. “I still aspire to be a billionaire,” she said. “And it’s not so I can have more shoes—it’s so I can make more impact.”

The Wing, co-founded by Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan in 2016, was a pioneer in women-targeted co-working; it now has approximately 10,000 members spread among 10 locations. (Annual membership fees begin at $2,220, and it recently announced its first conference, Strictly Business, which will take place at an event space in Queens this May.) And then there’s Luminary, a women’s co-working-and-networking space in New York’s NoMad neighborhood with a rooftop lounge called “the Glass Ceiling” that charges $1,620 to $4,350 a year for individual memberships.

“I still aspire to be a billionaire, and it’s not so I can have more shoes.”

Some start-ups specialize in servicing women in their business travels. Shelley Zalis founded the Girls’ Lounge “by accident” in 2012. She wanted to attend the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but heard that, of the 150,000 attendees, less than 3 percent were women. “What do you do when you’re a little nervous? You call your girlfriends,” she said. And so, she recruited four friends, who recruited others, who recruited even more, swelling the group to 50 women in less than 24 hours, and they walked through the convention together.

Lauren Kassan and Audrey Gelman at a Wing in progress in SoHo.

“Two remarkable things happened. One, every single guy’s head turned, like, ‘Where did all you women come from?’ And that’s when I coined the phrase ‘power of the pack,’” said Zalis. “And the second, I was surrounded by women just like me, and that’s when I coined the phrase ‘Confidence is beautiful.’”

In 2016, The New York Times reported Zalis had raised $3 million from sponsors; though Zalis and a spokesperson declined to comment on how much revenue the company earns now, they said the Female Quotient (the company’s latest name) is a “self-funding business” that has “achieved significant growth over the past few years” and now counts 50 companies as partners.

“I was surrounded by women just like me, and that’s when I coined the phrase ‘Confidence is beautiful.’”

The company also hosts “boot camps” inside Fortune 1000 companies to workshop issues like closing the wage gap and installing more women in leadership positions. Deloitte started sponsoring Equality Lounges after Alicia Hatch, chief marketing officer for Deloitte Digital, met Zalis one morning at a lounge at SXSW, in Austin, Texas, around four years ago. “I was maybe not looking my very best, and I had to go in for a video interview, so she pulled me right over said, ‘Let us help you pull yourself together,’” said Hatch. “It just felt like such a relief—so much support—and I was like, That has never happened in history.”

The Female Quotient continues to expand. “I’ve been really bringing visibility to women in the Middle East, so I went to Riyadh in October, which was probably the bravest thing I’ve ever done,” said Zalis, who hosted a lounge and women’s panel at the Future Investment Initiative conference, after being invited by visitors to the FQ Lounge at Davos. “Listen, with Khashoggi and everything, a Jewish-American girl in Riyadh, by myself, is a little scary.” Zalis plans to return in February to host a dinner for 500 women.

Desperately Seeking Capital

The vague notion of empowering women at work or inspiring them through exposure to corporate or Hollywood types may be a viable business model. But what about everything else feminism as a movement advocates for?

In 2018, Claire Fitzsimmons started Salty, a volunteer-run online magazine and newsletter that covers sex and relationships through pieces by women, trans, and non-binary contributors. “I can’t think of anything more terrifying to venture capitalists,” said Fitzsimmons, who is open about her struggles to keep the publication afloat. She met with 50 venture capitalists but was unable to raise money from any of them. “A lot of men wanted to give me their advice on how I should run this company,” she said. “I don’t need you to cheer me on from the sidelines—I need your capital investment.” She plans to continue funding Salty through select advertising, events, merchandise, and a membership program, where people pay from $4.99 to $19.99 per month.

“I don’t have a problem with women making money from being empowered and expressing their empowerment. The only problem is with men exploiting that,” said Fitzsimmons, noting that often the people reaping the biggest financial rewards from these businesses are men at the top of the financial funnel.

“I don’t need you to cheer me on from the sidelines—I need your capital investment.”

These organizations and clubs aim to create an inclusive space for women, but given the price of entry, they’re inherently exclusive in nature. A younger generation of feminists isn’t entirely sold. Take Annick Tabb, a student at Binghamton University, whose recent column in her school newspaper argued that feminist rhetoric could provide cover for companies that mistreat and exploit employees. “The idea of the ‘girlboss’ argues that feminism and capitalism should coexist,” she writes. But, to be clear, “it often benefits a certain kind of woman who already enjoys certain privileges.”

Amy Odell is a writer based in New York and the author of Tales from the Back Row: An Outsider’s View from Inside the Fashion Industry