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The Inaugural Women Entrepreneurs Festival: Building a Better Movement

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When I recently agreed to participate in a panel at the inaugural Women Entrepreneurs Festival, I had no idea what to expect. My last official association with a women's group was a short-lived stint in a sorority, and it's only in the last year, since receiving a grant for "entrepreneurial journalism," that I've started to identify with the independent, wacky sector of the economy we call entrepreneurs.

When I saw the roster of speakers and attendees, I knew there would be some interesting conversations. But I never expected to glimpse the beginnings of a new wave for the Women's Movement - or rather, a Women's Movement 2.0. The proceedings took place at ITP, the Interactive Technology Program at NYU's Tisch School for the Arts. A technology program within an arts school, where students craft beautiful, innovative communications technologies, turned out to be an appropriate venue. Throughout the weekend it seemed that maybe we too were building something innovative, optimistic, and, well, fun.

Saturday morning, a couple hundred women and a few men gathered in a very large classroom for co-chair Joanne Wilson's opening comments. Joanne is a spunky, sparkling mother of three who has bought for Macy's, spearheaded sales in Silicon Valley, brought technology to inner city schools, served on the board of numerous non-profits and start-ups, and kept a blog since 2003. As the audience -- including Joanne's husband -- looked on, Joanne described her own path, intertwining the personal and professional. She talked about what it meant for her generation of women to "have it all," a career and kids, and how tough she found it to be good at both and maintain her core identity. Joanne frequently says "her most important job is being a mom," but she also admitted that when fate found her in the suburbs, solely focused on her family, "the domestic bliss" nearly did her in. This was the holistic, honest, vulnerable, and often hilarious point-of-view Joanne took as she described how the Web saved her, allowing her to work from home, on her own schedule, in her "jammies," if need be.

"Tech," Joanne said, "is going to help us redefine feminism."

I hadn't thought much about technology in preparing my own presentation for the festival, though in retrospect I realize it's integral to my own story of entrepreneurship. My path so far, like Joanne's, has been anything but straight and narrow. I studied global development and creative writing in college in Santa Barbara, California and Rio de Janeiro. Well, I studied, and I shopped. The artisan-made clothing I fell in love with in Brazil, and the conversations it led to in California, made me think clothes could tell compelling, colorful stories on topics like ethics, the environment, economics, and art. I started tearing related images and articles from magazines, and compiling scrapbooks of inspiring material - much of which pointed me to New York. I moved here shortly after graduation and began working in fashion production and design, with the idea of starting my own clothing label to clothe consumers with informed taste - those who really wanted to know how and where their clothes were made. I spent a few years in the industry, watching and working for brands with missions similar to my own. I thought more than competition, they needed coverage - not just "press," as we say in fashion, but journalistic coverage. The food movement was taking off at the time, thanks to Michael Pollan's seminal book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and I thought the apparel sector could use a similar kick in the pants. (Forgive the pun.) That was my mission when I applied to journalism school - to write The Omnivore's Dilemma for fashion: a good, old-fashioned book.

At the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, I wrote a lot, but I was also expected to record audio, edit video, and make Web sites. Ugh, technology. I viewed these requirements as necessary evils, stumbling blocks in my path toward my final semester, when I could begin my book proposal. Jeff Jarvis, my professor in a class entitled Entrepreneurial Journalism, didn't exactly see it my way. He pushed me toward technology, saying a book would be great, but it would only be a single mode of expressing this idea. Why not do it in multimedia? Build something bigger? So, I started a blog of my ideas about clothing - like a living version of my old scrapbooks - except on Closettour my ideas were public. People could respond to them, to me.

Last December I was awarded a grant to pursue this project, which has grown into a short video series, a role at a national network's fashion site, freelance magazine articles, and yes, a book proposal. Like many journalists, I had learned to tell stories with technology, and sure, I found audio and video to be powerful mediums. But the real power in technology, I see now, is the power to connect -- not just to an audience, but to each other.

That connection is what another panelist at the Festival, Dale Dougherty, addressed when he (yes, he) took the microphone. Dale developed and published the first commercial Web site -- like, ever -- and he also founded a magazine called Make. Dale calls it "Martha Stewart for geeks," which it absolutely is. Make has coalesced a community and cultural phenomenon, complete with an annual festival in three cities. Dale describes the inventors, tinkerers, artists, and builders -- makers -- as people who see obstacles as an opportunity to create something cool. That geeky love of invention can easily turn a person into an outsider -- something Dale said he's dealt with his whole life. But rather than trying to fit into conventional structures that made him uncomfortable, Dale basically applied his "maker" methodology to his career, and used technology to connect a whole community of like-minded, innovative optimists. He essentially "made" the world he wanted to see -- one that uses technology to craft fun, artistic solutions to interesting problems. And he was the only guy addressing a room full of women!

By Saturday afternoon, in addition to Dale's story, I had heard more inspiring, instructive stories.

Jen Bekman said she thought everyone should live with art, and talked about how that idea evolved from her Nolita gallery into the affordable art-commerce site, 20 x 200. Alexandra Wilkis Wilson said the same thing about New York City-style sample sales -- which might sound insane until you realize she co-founded the 4-million-member-strong Gilt Groupe. I had been so intimidated by these names the day before, but by the time we sat down for a round-table discussion with the audience, I was just having fun. We basically all turned into geeks, reminded of what we loved about our individual enterprises, and energized by the experience of being in a room full of people with similar passion. It was fun; it was comfortable; it was absolutely awesome.

The only time I got nervous that day was when I looked up during my presentation and saw Joanne Wilson, smiling in the audience. It's odd, because just the day before, I had stopped by her house to make sure I was on track with my preparations. Sitting at her kitchen counter, Joanne talked a mile a minute, but about other things - new ideas brewing, the city slush's abominable effects on footwear, whether I should get a dog (no), and how my boyfriend likes his new job. As for the Festival, she reminded me to talk about the grant, assured me I'd be great, and sent me out in my snow-boots, confident for the day ahead.

When I saw Joanne in the audience Saturday, I didn't get nervous because she's a powerful person or a potential investor, but because I wanted to make her proud. One might expect a gathering of entrepreneurs to be all about building capital investment. The Women Entrepreneurs Festival was more about building community -- the kind of community that comes from computer screens and kitchen counters alike, that seamlessly melds technology with art, is sensitive and smart in equal measures, and where there's always room for one more -- man or woman. It's the Women's Movement, 2.0.