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.

Handing Out Awards to Women: How it Fosters Success

hautehonorscheckin (1)This past Thursday morning a sold-out crowd gathered inside of Albuquerque’s Balloon Museum at 7 a.m., not for an early morning hot air balloon launch, but to celebrate fifty nominees and honor the finalists and winners. The nominees – mostly women, but some men – were being recognized for their contributions as humanitarians, leaders, innovators, entrepreneurs, and as advocates for women. While some of the Haute Honors 2015 nominees were well-known, for many others, it was the first time anyone beyond a select few were learning about their accomplishments and contributions.

Hautepreneurs’ Strategic Plan

The annual breakfast awards banquet and shop local event, which also provides free booth space to twenty women-founded businesses to offer attendees local options for holiday shopping, is the final event which culminates a yearlong agenda of events, workshops and classes through Hautepreneurs, an organization which I cofounded in 2013 along with Jessica Eaves Mathews, who is a national speaker and author, successful serial entrepreneur and personal coach through her Brave Wings program. With the help of our dynamic board of directors, who are all successful women entrepreneurs and community leaders, we are executing on a bold, strategic plan to create a sustainable framework built on a strong support network, targeted training and peer mentoring in order to increase the ratio of women entrepreneurs and leaders achieving high level goals and running successful companies.

Public Recognition

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Why does Hautepreneurs’ strategy include an awards event? Because it turns out that women, as a collective gender, aren’t all that good about bragging up their own accomplishments. This results in a dearth of visible examples of success to serve as inspiration and validation for other women beginning their journey or struggling to overcome barriers. By creating an environment that celebrates the accomplishments of women from a wide variety of industries and at varying stages of their journey, we create an atmosphere that encourages women to lift each other up, to share their own accomplishments, and to believe it is possible to achieve high levels of success.

Training, Mentoring, and Access to Capital

In addition to our awards program which fosters a mindset of celebrating accomplishments and our annual national women’s leadership conference, which teaches women the value of learning from successful peers, our Hautepreneurs strategy also includes Design Councils, which provides ongoing privacy-protected peer mentoring and weekly free office hours to provide one-time mentor sessions with those seeking help within the community. More focused programs address training for successful crowdfunding campaigns, access to peer-based micro lending in partnership with Nusenda and Living Cities as well as women-led venture investing, and our signature yearlong accelerator program with both a nonprofit arm for women facing significant barriers to success, Haute Hopes, and Hautecelerator, a fee-based accelerator for women-led businesses which do not fit within the more common but tightly defined accelerator models open to investable startups; Hautecelerator offers these businesses vital mentoring and training needed to achieve the next level of growth or to resolve current challenges or barriers to success.

Showcasing Successful Women in Male-Dominated Industries

One of the things I love most about the Haute Honors awards is the wide variety of industries and experience levels represented by the nominees. It includes highly underrepresented demographics like Women in Tech, like Akamee Baca Malta, who was honored for the innovative work she and her team are doing at As Girls Grow to help expand options within the hot industry of girl-focused STEM toys thanks to the continuing success of groundbreaking, women-led companies like GoldieBlox. But Haute Honors awards also include women who may not see their work as groundbreaking or worthy of praise, despite overcoming significant obstacles. This year’s honor, Kathleen Edwards, is one such woman. She cofounded Hear Kitty Studios with her spouse, initially running the company out of their home; today, she has grown the studio into a high-demand audio post-production studio that now serves New Mexico’s film industry, contributing to projects like In Plain Sight, Battlestar Gallactica, The Night Shift, and Manhattan.

Highlighting Trail Blazers as Role Models

12313620_1010233905685690_5342308703444982121_nEach year, the annual awards banquet recognizes the achievements of several women who have served as trail blazers, offering a clearer path to success through their own successful careers, such as one of this year’s honorees, Ann Rhoades, the founder of People Ink. She was part of the founding executive team which launched JetBlue Airways and continues to sit on their board. She previously served in top leadership positions for such corporate giants as Promus Hotel Corporation and Southwest Airlines. When women who are hitting the wall within their own journey, it is vital that they know where to look for inspiration. Honoring women who have served a trail blazers proves that other women have accomplished great things – and they’ve done so without losing ties to community.

Recognizing Men Who Champion Women

Haute Honors also acknowledges the inspiration we find in teens who are already pursuing big ideas as well as those making significant strides towards success. And each year, the awards culminate in recognition of men within the community who have gone above and beyond to create opportunities or support the efforts of women. One of this year’s honorees actually emailed our organization after discovering he was among the nominees, suggesting that perhaps there had been a mistake. He was completely unaware of the number of women-led startups which put forward his name for consideration for the Champion of Women honor a result of his support and mentorship to their teams. He never pictured himself as a champion for women despite his actions directly affecting the potential of success for several of those he’d mentored.

What happened this past Thursday morning was exactly what we’d hoped: several women who were initially surprised to find their name among nominees were even more surprised to receive a top award. Men discovered through anecdotes and feedback from others that their support and advocacy of women had not only been noticed and valued but that it had changed the trajectory of success for others. And new role models were held up as inspiration and hope for the rest of those in attendances.

Fostering a Culture of Support

It was a morning of celebration, support and hope for the future, with those in attendance taking to social media to lift each other up and inspire others to be braver, bolder and bigger in their dreams and goals.

Accolades as Inspiration for Growth

The Haute Honors Awards event is but one of a wide variety of programs offered as part of a successful framework for women to become successful, but it is a vital one and the perfect way to end the year. With public recognition comes confidence, and with confidence come bravery. And when bravery leads to bold new steps of growth, that is when the potential to shift the ratio of highly successful women-led businesses gets that much closer to reality.

Advice for Women Entrepeneurs

Since founding APPCityLife six years ago, I’ve often vacillated between guilt and gratitude – guilt over not being a stay-at-home mom anymore and gratitude for the many opportunities for growth. I’ve made peace (mostly) with the trade-offs, knowing that there is no real balance in life for anyone. Whatever we choose as our path in life, we lose out on something else – and if we spend our time regretting what couldn’t happen, we completely miss the value of what is right in front of us.

I think accepting this truth is such a big challenge for women who feel a deep sense of responsibility to their family but who also want to launch their own business or grow it to the next level. The guilt of what we can no longer give to our family can become a burden that prevents the very success we’re seeking. But a far more insidious barrier to success comes when we give ourselves permission to use obligations to family as an escape hatch when things get scary or hard.

If I had one piece of advice to give to other women entrepreneurs, it would be this: Don’t ever devalue your role as a mother, daughter, or anything else, by using it as the scapegoat for your lack of performance as an entrepreneur.

 

I recently attended a meeting where a brilliant young woman entrepreneur was called out for her lack of preparation. The accusations were pointed, public and, frankly, over the top. I learned afterwards from several in attendance that the lack of preparation on her part (as well as several others who weren’t so publicly challenged) had far more to do with miscommunication of expectations from the person who had gotten angry with her. And had she spoken directly to that failure to clearly set goals and expectations, she would have established herself as the leader that I know she is. But when she chose to use family obligations as an escape hatch to avoid the heat instead of taking it on directly, she devalued her role as a mother and her credibility as a leader. She’s a tough, driven entrepreneur, and I have no doubt that her experience in that meeting will help her make the more difficult decision the next time she faces a similar challenge.

Another friend of mine recently expressed how guilty she felt every time she had to tell her children no when they asked to do something when she was working on her business. But here’s the thing – unless our children are newborns, they don’t need our constant attention and time. In fact, it can stifle their ability to develop a sense of independence and self-reliance. And if a woman is going to take the step of becoming an entrepreneur and sacrifice some of her time with family to build a business, she owes it to herself and her family to take it seriously enough to make it worth the sacrifice. When we play at entrepreneurship, we not only severely reduce our chances of success, we cheat ourselves and our family out of our time without anything to show for the sacrifice. When we make the more difficult decision to believe that what we are building is important and deserves our full effort, we can feel better about the time we spend on our business – and about the time we dedicate to our family.

It is so tempting to tap into that calling of “family obligations” as our escape hatch. After all, who is going to call us out for doing such a noble thing as sacrificing the time we need to spend on our company to fulfill some family obligation? It’s easy to use as our excuse to step back from the edge of growth right before a breakthrough.

When we don’t hide behind our personal obligations and actually face our fears, the growth that happens is exhilarating. And whether we succeed or fail, we learn something about ourselves – that we can make decisions as a leader and still be okay with our relationships with those around us. In fact, those varying parts of our lives can co-exist far easier when we know we aren’t using one as an excuse to avoid the other. Entrepreneurship for women isn’t an either/or proposition. It’s about finding what works and being honest with ourselves about the journey so that we can embrace the changes and the growth along the way.