WeFestival: A Conversation with Joanne Wilson and Susan Solomon

FullSizeRender (1)

Joanne and Susan, circa 1970

For the past several years, I’ve waited impatiently to find out if I would be one of the lucky few invited to New York to attend the annual WeFestival, a Women’s Entrepreneur Festival (and thus, the name). I’ve written previously about my experiences at the event, and when I discovered that this year I would be attending as a panelist, it felt like things had come full circle. After gaining invaluable advice from panelists in previous years, it is a privilege to now have the opportunity to possibly help someone else.

This year’s WeFestival, which already boasts an exciting lineup of speakers, is scheduled for April 13 -14 in New York. But this year’s event will be different in several ways. I recently had the chance to ask Joanne Wilson, one of the original cofounders of WeFestival, and her sister, Susan Solomon, about the changes happening within WeFestival and to learn about some of their future plans, including the exciting news that additional events are already slated for Berlin and Los Angeles.

joanne_wilson-8062Wilson, a well-known blogger and angel investor based in New York City, says shaking things up was a necessity after spending five years in partnership with New York University to host the event which brings together 400 women entrepreneurs from across the globe. “It was time to either pack it in … five years is a good run … or to change the game,” says Wilson, who had growing concerns that the current format had become too formulaic. “I knew there was more to do, but it wasn’t going to happen under the umbrella of NYU.  It had to become a business where there was a support system to build something unique and powerful based on five years of experience and feedback from many of the attendees.”

While conferences abound, WeFestival has gained a reputation as being a unique experience. “It is the only conference where I see “real women” who are in the trenches,” says Wilson. “As women, we are all in it together to be heard and connect to a community – to learn and listen.  It is quite powerful.” Among her own personal highlights from previous events, topping the list for Wilson was her opportunity to interview the iconic Diane Von Furstenberg.

meWhen Susan Solomon expressed interest in the new venture, Wilson knew she’d found the perfect partner in her sister to help steer the new direction for WeFestival. Solomon is committed to nurturing the interactions and relationships borne at the event. “Our goal is to assemble a broad, diverse set of women entrepreneurs who are committed to their venture. This includes women from all sectors of the economy, ethnicity, age and business stage,” says Solomon, adding that the decision to move the event venue was also strategic. “We looked for a space whose environment could mirror the true experience happening at the event. Instead of having the ‘closed’ doors of traditional conference rooms, we chose 1 World Trade Center for its fluid and spacious flow, allowing us to marry the experience and the environment.”

One tradition the team is keeping is requiring applications, which are still being accepted through the end of January. The limited number of slots available for WeFestival are assigned after all applications are reviewed, says Wilson. “I am blown away by some of the heartfelt stories from women. And then I am amazed on some of the applications where someone has obviously not taken the time or energy to write something meaningful.”

She adds, “We want people who are truly putting down their guard and really want to be there.” Solomon adds that, in keeping with the goals of WeFestival, the application process ensures that a broad spectrum is represented at each event.

Sisters Joanne Wilson and Susan Soloman, 1968, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Sisters Joanne Wilson and Susan Soloman, 1968, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The new WeFestival is built like a true startup. “Susan is my side-kick here.  That’s it. She has driven the entire back-end.,” says Wilson. “We have a few freelancers, but essentially, it is just us. We like lean and mean operations.”

Despite the lean team, WeFestival’s online community is already growing. Says Solomon, “We’ve created a Slack community so women can connect all year-long – not just at the event. While we used Facebook before, we’re hoping that through Slack, we can create a real sense of community and camaraderie.”

What does remain consistent across the old and the new WeFestivals is the draw of Wilson, herself, who has cultivated a strong following of her blog, Gotham Gal. She has remained surprisingly accessible to women entrepreneurs despite the increasing demand on her time, thanks, in part, to the attention she has garnered as a highly successful angel investor who not only advocates for women entrepreneurs but invests in them as well.

Says Wilson, “I have become the poster child for women entrepreneurs.  It just happened.” She adds that, for her, WeFestival connects directly to that. “I really believe we are changing women’s lives and in turn the long tail effects families, the economy, people. I hear from women years later on how the festival changed their lives, or that they finally launched their business, or they have a meet-up monthly or have found their business partner.”

The event certainly changed my own journey by helping me realize the incredible value of finding a supportive community filled with role models who looked like me and spoke like me and made me believe in myself. And while discovering the value of this community didn’t change at all the hard work or effort required to build a company, it completely changed my mindset – and that, really, changes everything.

Advertisements

7 Women Who Inspire Us to Set Audacious Goals

At the beginning of each year, I set professional goals that I share with none else, mainly to allow myself the freedom of audacity. I aim high, setting my stretch goals so far outside of what looks possible that I get a little scared just thinking about them. Much to my surprise, I’ve reached more of those stretch goals than I ever accomplished when I kept within modest, safe boundaries.

When we stretch ourselves outside of our own confidence, when we are willing to live on the edge of our ability, there is an energy, a drive that isn’t present within the confines of a safe life. And using personal achievements as a catalyst to create opportunity for others is just as important. Fulfillment does not lie within the fountain of provision and safety; it lies in the joy of daring to believe in the impossible and risking everything to make it so – and then carrying others forward as a result of our own journey.

Finding role models who exhibit proof that it is possible to build illustrious careers while carrying others forward has helped me broaden my perspective. Some are dear friends and mentors while others simply inspire me by how they are choosing to spend their lives. Here are a few of the women who inspire me to believe that within each of us lies the potential to be bolder, to think bigger, and to let go of security to create, solve, and give back to something that matters.

Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen

LAA-Headshot-Giving-2.0-e1437699555771 Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen inspires me because she has chosen to use her life’s achievements for the betterment of others. Upon reaching what others might have seen as the pinnacle of success in the academic world, she was only getting started. She has used her successes with its resulting honors and broader network as assets to empower others through her visionary philanthropic organization, LAAF. In addition to fueling worthy social impact organizations, LAAF embraces scalable, open-source tech that can teach others how to more effectively impact society through their own philanthropic efforts. She reminds me that women should not fear success or the trajectory into the public eye, because it is a powerful platform that can serve as a catalyst for the changes that women want to see in the world.

Gabriela Dow

Gabriela Dow SC Headshot CroppedGabriela Dow, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, has already achieved success as a journalist, serving at two CNN bureaus as well as CBS, and in multiple roles in the White House and Washington D.C., including public liaison in the White House. She is a serial entrepreneur who has been named one of the top nine people to watch in San Diego, California, where she is currently raising her family with her husband while also serving multiple roles in the community and running a consulting company serving government agencies. But it is not her successful career that inspires me, although it is quite impressive. It is her grounded, pragmatic view of life. Born into wealth in Mexico, she understands clearly the perks and clout that money can buy – and the constraints that living a protected life creates. Despite being thrown into poverty when her mother and siblings started over in the United States, she views that time in her life as being given “the opportunity to fail”. She is a role model for anyone who believes that someone else’s wealth and provision are an acceptable trade off to never fulfilling one’s own goals.

Anne-Marie Slaughter

iXwSMk4UFor the past two years, Anne-Marie Slaughter has headed up the think tank and civic enterprise, New America, while also serving as Professor Amerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. She was the first woman to serve as Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State, receiving the Secretary’s Distinguished Service Award and meritorious service awards from USAID and the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe for her work. She’s also served previously as the Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affair, written or edited six books and over 100 scholarly articles and has accumulated a large collection of awards and accolades. She has done all of this in the midst of raising two sons with her husband, who is also a professor. Anne-Marie inspires me because of her voice and how she chooses to use it. She can speak intelligently and with conviction on a broad range of regarding policy, government, and civic innovation but also chooses to use her voice to point out the biases and challenges faced by men who opt to be the primary parent in a relationship. She advocates for change, not through strident, provocative or angry tirades but by sharing compelling research and personal anecdotes to articulate her point of view. Anne-Marie reminds me that I can speak up, hold strong opinions and do so without creating needless strife if I speak from a place of authority and respect to others.

Carrie Hammer

Carrie Hammer-HEADSHOTI have long lived under the belief that if I am thinking something nice about someone else, that whenever possible, they should be aware of the positive thoughts going their way. This mindset recently resulted in my meeting Carrie Hammer while attending a women’s leadership forum in New York City when I approached a gracious young woman to tell her how stunning she looked in the dress she was wearing. A talented designer who is a graduate of Parsons Paris School of Art and Design as well as the Tory Burch Foundation Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program, Carrie is taking the world by storm since her “Role Models Not Runway Models” fashion show in New York City in 2014 which featured the first ever model who modeled the runway in a wheelchair. She has already appeared on prestigious lists such as the Forbes 30 Under 30 and 15 Women Entrepreneurs to Watch in 2015. Carrie is an inspiration, because she is proving that it is possible to combine talent, drive and a mission to create one’s one mark within a highly competitive industry.

Joanne Wilson

150408122429-dreamit-athena-joanne-wilson-780x439Joanne Wilson is an inspiration to me on so many levels. I first discovered her through her blog, Gotham Gal, where she shares insights about her life in New York or about the places she visits, about parenting or recipes she’s recently enjoyed, and about the companies she invests in and the women entrepreneurs that she meets who inspire her. She is an indefatigable advocate for women, putting her own money behind the businesses that resonate with her own values – and racking up an enviable success ratio as an angel investor. She is also the vision behind the Women Entrepreneurs Festival, held each year in New York City and bringing together 300 attendees for a day focused on the challenges and success faced by women entrepreneurs at every stage of business. It was her festival that helped me build a network of support outside of my own city, and it was the panelists curated for the days’ sessions that often helped me resolve the challenges I was facing in my business. But she inspires because of her willingness to be accessible. Yes, she protects her time as we all must. But more than once when I needed advice about the terms of an investment offer or how to find investors while working to close my own round, she made introductions to people within her network that she thought would be a good fit. She gave me feedback on my pitch deck. And she gave me honest, raw advice. She didn’t have to do any of that; she didn’t know me from Adam. But she did, and it helped me take steps of courage while armed with knowledge. She reminds me of the importance of being willing to help others when and where we can and to remain as accessible as possible no matter how demanding life becomes.

J. Kelly Hoey

photo-3Forbes has described Kelly Hoey as one of five women changing the world of VC for women. She’s also been called one of the 100 most influential women – and one of the 25 smartest women – on Twitter. When I first met Kelly, I was completely unaware of the massive amount to accolades, awards and prestigious lists already in her arsenal. We met for a cup of coffee, and if I add in the cost of the plane ticket to New York City, it was a rather expensive cup of coffee, even by gourmet coffee standards. But it was the best investment in a cup of coffee I ever made. Through our conversation that day, I not only gained an invaluable advisor and mentor, but a dear friend who is willing to tell me the hard truths, because she understands that friends tell each other what they’re doing wrong as well as building up courage and confidence through praising what is being done right. Kelly walked away from a thriving law career to become an angel investor and went on to help found an accelerator for women in mobile. She is a highly respected strategist, columnist, author, and a consummate networker. But my inspiration from her comes from the wisdom of how and when she uses her influence and voice. She is outspoken and is not at all afraid to call someone out when she believes it is merited. But she chooses when and how to use that voice, and by doing so, is taken seriously when she does. She reminds me that a voice and platform become so much more powerful and useful when we choose when and how to effectively convey our values.

Minerva Tantoco

Minerva TantocoMinerva-Tantoco started coding in the ’80’s as a pre-med student, where she used a mainframe to run statistics for a psychology class and later studied programming. She holds four patents, has directed tech for UBS, Merrill Lynch, Fannie May and Palm, and she currently serves at CTO for New York City. An incredibly savvy, brilliant woman, Minerva inspires me because she chooses to champion other women, bringing a strong, positive voice and role model for young women both in her own city and across the world. Our company participated in this year’s NYC Big Apps competition, supporting a group of young teenage women who were part of the YWCA NYC Geek Girls Club, and it was not lost on me that Minerva cheered those young women on when they were pitching their mobile app ideas to adults who were much older and more powerful; she bolstered their courage and gave them confidence by using her voice on social media to cheer them on. If you follow her on Twitter, you’ll soon discover that interspersed with posts addressing cutting edge tech, she shares kudos to everyone from young women in STEM program to women serving in leadership positions. She reminds me that is it vital that we use our position and our reach to lift others up, to use our successes to encourage young women to be brave and bold in their own choices, to not fear failure or to believe that failure is anything other than a roadblock to be circumvented on the way to a goal.