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Finding the value of women’s conferences

Posted in: Events

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When I pulled the latest Bloomberg Businessweek from my mailbox, I was excited to see a cover story about conferences for women.  Not only have I’ve gone to these conferences, but I organize them.

The story by Sheelah Kolhatkar in the Feb. 8 issue questions whether these conferences are really helping anyone, and includes comments from many of the women you’d love to speak at your conference such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, the well-known author and president of the New America, and Sallie Krawcheck, the Wall Street exec who’s now CEO of Ellevest.

The annual conferences I organize are part of Women Entrepreneurship Week, which has been celebrated in New Jersey the past two years in October (WEW will be Oct. 17-22 in 2016). WEW started as a small ceremony in 2014, with Montclair State holding three events on its campus, plus events held at three other North Jersey universities. In 2015, WEW became a statewide ceremony with 20 colleges and nonprofits holding events during the week from the southern side of New Jersey to the northern reaches. We plan to make Women Entrepreneurship Week a national celebration in 2016, and already have interest from universities across the country, as well as outside the United States.

When the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship decided to move into this space, it was because we felt there was a void. The idea originated with a man, Dennis Bone, the director of the Feliciano Center. In spring 2014 we hit Google and found there was no weeklong celebration of women entrepreneurs—anywhere.

A mission of the Feliciano Center is to nurture and encourage women entrepreneurs, wherever they may be on the spectrum of that definition: from college students who aspire to own a business someday to women who already lead multimillion-dollar enterprises.

Our goal was always to make this conference as accessible as possible, especially for our students. Thanks to our sponsors, we don’t charge admission to our all-day conference, nor the evening events we hold during WEW.

No doubt there is a rubber band and masking tape feel to parts of our WEW conference. Our lunch is in a box that attendees pick up at the back of the room, so we can save on service costs. Our signs marketing the event are printed on our office copier. We splurged to print stickers with our WEW logo but pasted them on the attendees’ folders ourselves to save a few bucks. As a startup ourselves in the conference-planning space, we approach everything from the scrappy perspective we see demonstrated every day by our students and early-stage entrepreneurs.

“Inspired” is a word commonly used when entrepreneurs give us their feedback about the WEW conference: “I left feeling inspired, motived, fully charged and empowered!”

Our students used similar words, but what’s noteworthy is the comments below came two months later, when the students were doing final reflection papers for our ENTR 201 “Entrepreneurial Mindset and Innovation” course and gave feedback about the WEW conference, unprompted.

One student called the conference “truly inspiring and eye opening” and said: “It just showed me how men aren’t the only ones capable of success, that with passion and dedication you can become a successful woman and open up your own business.”

Another student wrote about feeling motivated and empowered after attending our conference. “Their stories helped me to believe that anything is possible. … It helped ease away the fears of being a female entrepreneur.”

Some students were inspired to take action after the conference, following up on business cards they received from entrepreneurs at the event. They’d swarm toward the stage after a panel ended, eager to connect with the speakers. They also approached our keynote speakers. Our state’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, has this shtick where she gives out her cell phone number anytime she speaks. Thousands of New Jersey business people have heard Guadagno offer her cell phone number to them. But how many actually contact her? After Guadagno spoke at our WEW conference, Ashley Zahabian and Brittni Landers each contacted the LG separately and received replies. Guadagno has even followed up with Landers, months later, inquiring how school is going. Zahabian and Landers were not only inspired but learned the power of taking action.

It’s hard to assign a value to inspiration—there’s no new job for a woman created from attending our WEW conference, no increase in the count of women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, not one more woman at the table of a board meeting at a for-profit company. But when I see Zahabian and Landers, two young women who were already quite confident, stopping by my office with an extra spring in their step and an uptick in the excitement in their voices as they tell me about the lieutenant governor responding to them, there’s no way to put a value to that. It’s priceless.

Sharon Waters is the program manager at the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship.