WeFestival: A Conversation with Joanne Wilson and Susan Solomon

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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.