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Why Is the Women Entrepreneurs Festival So Different?

01/21/2012 02:08 pm 14:08:34 | Updated Mar 22, 2012

The Women Entrepreneurs Festival was held this week at ITP, the two-year graduate program at NYU where students earn a masters in the imaginative uses of technology. I'm on the faculty and the idea for a gathering of women entrepreneurs was the brainchild of Joanne Wilson (Gotham Gal) and me. Now we've both been going to tech conferences for about 25 years, and so in a good position to say that there's something very different about this gathering. Joanne and I have been noodling this question and here are some reflections.

First, we called it a festival, not a conference. The wording set a tone and led to a more exuberant organization of events.

Second, we had a knock out keynote speaker: Arianna Huffington. We all expected a great speech from a person of such fierce intelligence -- successful, confident, dynamic. No one was prepared for a talk that felt more like a conversation, an intimate conversation, with a mentor, one with great anecdotes, a terrific sense of humor, generous with her wisdom and lessons learned. There was a collective groan of recognition when she talked about the constant judgmental voice in her head: you should have done X, why did you wear Y, why didn't you say Z? She called it the obnoxious roommate in her head. We determined at the end of the day, that all 250 of us were going to send our obnoxious roommates to some dormitory far away on another planet or second life.

Her stories flowed back and forth from the personal to the professional, as all women do in our lives. She did it in public! At a podium! Clearly she thought it was a strength, not something to hide. That fluidity among the different aspects of our lives is a secret weapon. In the first wave of feminism, women tried to show that they could be one of the guys. Those days may be over.

There were the obvious atmospheric differences from other tech conferences: No lingering odor of guys who sleep in their clothes, old sneakers and Fritos-scented keyboards. There were lots of leftover baked goods -- muffins, bagels and cookies -- but the breakfast and lunch platters were scraped clean of fruit and salad.

And there's more... a total absence of sports metaphors in the presentations -- but many relationship allusions. Indeed, the theme of building relationships -- with your staff, your customers, your investors -- was a pervasive message.

My favorite exchange from Joanne Lang, the founder and CEO of AboutOne.com. She was asked how she went about raising money for her business. She said, "The big switch for me was when I re-framed how I thought about it... less as asking for money, more like looking for a husband: will this investor love me/my company forever, support me when I'm down, what did they have to offer me, are we compatible?"

Erin Newkirk of RedStamp.com added, "And you don't ask someone to marry you on the first date!"

Joanne also said, she researched everyone she wanted to meet, and didn't take no for an answer. "Basically," she said, "I'm a stalker!"

Jane Wells, a documentary producer and founder of 3Generations, said, "Being a mother is the best preparation for being an entrepreneur." This jibes with a finding written in the Harvard Business Review in 1990 that showed that women's style of management and leadership differed dramatically from men's. Men were more hierarchical, women practiced a 'web style of management." A typical organization chart tells the story. Only one person can be on top and everyone is in competition all the way up the musical chair chain. Women tend to see their roles as leading with the vision, getting everyone to understand and pull for the same goal, they "encourage participation, share power and information, enhance other people's self-worth, and get others excited about their work." Sounds like a good mom to me! Parents want all their kids to do well.

The speakers led with their passion, not analytics. All the entrepreneurs at the WE Festival spoke about not being able to find something they wanted/needed, or something that should have been easier, or a chore that could be made more efficient, or some way to help family members... which often led to the bingo! moment: If I have this need maybe others do, too. They talk about how hard it is to juggle work and family and friends, but they do it. They expect to have a multi-dimensional life. I know men have these concerns too. It's just hard to imagine them talking about them in public.

Joanne and I got a note today from Adekunle Somade, a young man and an ITP student we hired to tape the sessions. Here's an excerpt:

There appeared to be a sense of genuine personal interest and concern for the mutual success of both the attendees and the panelists that simply doesn't exist in male dominated tech conferences... a tone of discourse that resembled a sisterhood or sorority gathering where current sisters were mentoring future members of the organization. Each question or inquiry asked by an attendee wasn't just returned with a textbook answer but instead was filled with compassion...My question is, when and where was this bond formed? Why did people who had probably never seen each other prior to the conference care so much for each others' well-being and success? ... The attendees at the WE Festival were willing to make that extra effort to teach, mentor, and support each other because they were in this together. When you see someone going through the same tough challenges you are it becomes that much easier to root for them and do all you can to see them succeed. The unbridled compassion and collaboration I saw this at the Women's Entrepreneurs Festival and it made me smile. It doesn't hurt that these specific crop of entrepreneurs consisting of grandmothers, mothers, and sisters have been doing this out of necessity for their entire lives.

I'll let him have the last word... He's OK... we'll let him be one of the gals!

Nancy Hechinger teaches at ITP (itp.nyu.edu). The Women Entrepreneurs Festival was held on Jan. 17 and18. Arianna Huffington's talk and all the panels will be online next week. We'll send a link.