There are two heart-stopping moments when you watch a trapeze artist. One is the moment she leaves the security of the platform to catch the trapeze. The second is the moment she lets go of one trapeze, hangs in the air, before catching the second. It's a lot like deciding to become an entrepreneur. You have to know when to leave the platform of a reliable paycheck. And before that you have to have the urge to even try, the confidence, the idea, the passion. In other words, there has to be something that won't let you go to get you to let go.
My great-grandfather wrote in his diary when he was 17, about to come to the U.S., leave his family in Romania, probably forever, that America became like a bug in his ear, constantly buzzing, driving him nuts. The only way to stop the buzzing was to make that leap.
It's also a good idea before you let go to get some skills, and practice -- with a safety net. That's the idea that spurred Joanne Wilson and me three years ago to start the ITP Women Entrepreneurs Festival. We wanted to celebrate the women who were flying through the air (generally not with the greatest of ease) and to inspire other women and give them the skills and safety net to make the leap themselves. We designed this gathering to be different from other conferences targeting women. We wanted it to be a place of conversation, where participants and speakers had conversations and developed relationships. We saw the conversations between the most skilled, the most daring and the women on the verge as the strongest fiber with which to build a safety net.
It's a small, intimate conference -- never more than 300 people. And since the first conference, the attendees have kept in contact with each other, worked with each other, linked each other to resources. Why is this important? We heard a lot in this last endless presidential campaign about how small businesses drive the economy. And in the analysis of the election results, a lot about how key the votes of women were. And yet, women own 30 percent of all privately held businesses. Good news. But they account for only about 13 percent of revenues of the total. Bad news. Woman-owned businesses dominate in the health care and education-services business (61 percent), in other industry categories close to equal to men (49 percent). Good News. Self-employed women, not necessarily business owners (e.g. freelancers, health aides) earn 55 percent of what the same category of men earn. Bad News. More bad news: women have a harder time obtaining financing for their businesses. In fact, women who started businesses between 2004-2007 did so with 36 percent less capital than their male counterparts.
So Joanne and I decided it was time to focus on the skills needed to help women make the leap and then go confidently from one trapeze to the next. The focus, then, of the third Women Entrepreneurs Festival is "Getting Down to Business."
There will be panel presentations and discussions on the four stages of a business: Before You Leap, Launching, Getting Traction, Going to Scale. The participants for each panel are women who have made the change from one level to the next, so they will share their stories, their advice, and information on what you need to know. You can find out who all these speakers are by going to the website.
This year's keynote speaker is Liz Neumark of Great Performances, who took a small idea (hey, let's create a catering company so that artists can have another source of income) to a major player in the industry (the fourth largest caterer in the U.S.), with, I have to say it, a woman's heart and soul (establishing an organic farm to supply her firm, and educational programs running in schools throughout our region).
ITP, where I teach, is the host of the Festival. ITP is a two-year graduate program at NYU, part of the Tisch School of the Arts, which focuses on the imaginative uses of existing technologies. ITP was founded in 1979 by a pioneering and visionary woman, Red Burns, to ensure that with all the stuff we invent, the focus is not on the stuff, but what difference that stuff makes in the world. We are proud of the fact that our student body is always about 50 percent female. It has a lot to do with our culture, in which collaboration, skill-sharing and creativity are the most prized values. This is the spirit that also drives the Women Entrepreneurs Festival.
Last year's keynote speaker was Arianna Huffington -- she gave, you will have no doubt, a great speech. Its greatness for us was the gift of intimacy. She told of her own insecurities, misgivings, missteps. The biggest obstacle she said was "the obnoxious roommate in her head." That's the one who rolls her eyes at what you are wearing, puts down your ideas, doesn't think you can make it, tells you to do the safer thing. Our goal is to amplify the voice of the terrific roommate in your head, the one who becomes a friend forever, the one who says: You can do anything. Get ready, get set, let go!
This year, The Huffington Post joins ITP's Women Entrepreneurs Festival as a sponsor and will be reporting from the Festival. They will be covering not just the panelists, but the attendees, the stories of the daring young (of any chronological age) women on the flying trapezes of great entrepreneurial adventure.
The Women Entrepreneurs Festival is limited to 300 people. It will be held on Jan. 22 and 23, 2013. You must apply and be accepted to attend. Visit our website for the application and more information on the speakers and schedule.
Nancy Hechinger teaches on the full-time faculty of ITP, a department of the Tisch School of The Arts at NYU, and co-founder with Joanne Wilson of ITP's Women Entrepreneurs Festival.