I was introduced to Dee through a friend, Ashley Wick (whom I’ve profiled), who said ‘I think you’ll like her.’ Understatement. Dee is beyond kickass. Dee’s mission is to empower, motivate and help women which she does, very successfully, through a couple of venues. There is her WIE Network ( Women, Inspiration + Enterprise), an event focused community in which female entrepreneurs get help navigating corporate culture and all the issues women face from outstanding female founders in various fields. (Her first WIE conference in 2010 had Melinda Gates, Queen Rania, Diane Von Furstenberg, Katie Couric and many others.) And coming up on October 14th & 15th is The Other Festival, Dee’s second annual gathering for “female makers, creators, disruptors and dreamers” which will feature music, art, fashion and talks from high-profile female entrepreneurs including Jenna Lyons (formerly J. Crew), Jennifer Hyman (Founder Rent the Runway), Katia Beauchamp (Founder Birchbox), Carley Rooney (Founder, The Knot) and dozens of other equally impressive women. (Buy tix here before they sell out; I’m going.) I have been to a couple of Dee’s events and every time I leave energized by a topic or conversation she introduces, inspired by the accomplished women I meet, and hopeful, because when women get together and support each other, positive, sometimes life-changing, results happen. Something I’m trying to do more of, in my own way, with TFI as well. We can always use more nudges, encouragement and inspiration. Read on for a good dose of all three.
Tell us what you do—not you necessarily your professional title, but how you personally describe your job: I am in the business of helping women realize their full potential. I don’t think that any of us, particularly women, do that enough. I think we get caught up in the minutia because we’re worker bees by nature. I think that even when we’re at the height of our professional success, we can still get caught up in the day-to-day, the daily grind, and forget about the vision. Even when we know the answers, it’s helpful to have reminders of how we should be thinking about who we are, where we’re going, and what we want.
I’m very much my target audience, and so everything I do is driven by my personal needs, personal failures and successes. When people talk about WIE, they often use the word authentic or relatable. I think it’s mainly because I’m not looking at this from on high. I’m looking at it as someone who’s very much in the trenches with the audience I serve. I create content and educational programming that is designed to advance women in their careers.
It was driven by my own personal experiences navigating corporate culture, trying to make it, trying to figure out who I wanted to be, where I was trying to get to, and coming up against the obstacles we all do, and not necessarily having the tools or the knowledge to deal with those in the best possible way. WIE is that thing that I wish I’d had. It’s a form of mass mentorship, networking opportunities, and true, practical, real-world learning.
Talk about a little bit about your career. How did you end up where you are now? I began my career in the fashion business, which ultimately, wasn’t for me. I found my true calling when I joined the movie industry. My background is in marketing, which I love. Looking at films and thinking about who they’re meant for, how to position them best for success, speaking to audiences, and creating the materials that speak to them—the posters, trailers, TV ads and screenings–and the festivals. Just all of the branding and marketing that goes into connecting a film and its audience.
I worked at three movie studios: One in the UK, called Momentum Pictures, at Focus Features, which is the indie division of Universal, and then at Paramount. My last job was at Paramount, running international marketing for a division of the studio.
What were some of your favorite projects? I was so lucky. I feel like when I was in the film business, it was in the heyday of film. I worked on Brokeback Mountain with Ang Lee, and Lost in Translation with Sofia Coppola. I worked on a couple of Michael Moore documentaries; Bowling for Columbine was a seminal one. I worked on An Inconvenient Truth, with Al Gore.
Those were very significant films. Very significant films. Award wining, thought-provoking, game-changing movies that really made a difference.
How did you segue from a career in the film industry into creating WIE? I hit a wall in my own career. I wasn’t really sure where I was going, and I was so exhausted because it’s all-consuming. You have to just give everything of yourself. I left to start a business. I was applying my skills and experience and contacts to create content. It was a branded content company but ultimately it didn’t succeed. While I was doing that, I took on consulting jobs. I was approached a lot by people in the non-profit world, who had seen the work I’ve been doing, and wanted help recalibrating their own marketing messages, making them more palatable, and helping them connect more with the audience they were trying to reach.
I found myself more and more immersed in this non-profit world. A lot was working with women and for women. I felt very passionately about the injustices that women were facing on a daily basis globally, and I got more and more drawn into that side of things, and how I could contribute to moving things forward. That was really the genesis of WIE. The very first iteration of WIE was a conference and it was in the early days of women’s conferences. There weren’t very many around at the time. I looked around me, I saw many conferences that were male dominated. I wanted to create something that was antidote to that but also that was inclusive in every way. Inclusive racially and from a gender standpoint. That was WIE. That first conference was inspired by wanting to change the paradigm.
Now you focus more on multiple events and talks. WIE was an annual conference. We would talk to 500 women in various stages filled with impressive speakers, and that was great but the feedback I also got, particularly from the younger women, was that it could also be quite intimidating. It was hard to be in a large room and ask the questions they wanted to ask. It was hard to stick your neck out. Also, they wanted more opportunities to meet and to network.
The first smaller talk we had was with Catherine Malandrino. We did something in her store and talked about women and style, and how we dress for success. The history of empowered fashion and how women design differently than men. Women make clothes that make women feel good as opposed to creating fantasies.
That was great and then we had Shelly Lazarus, who was the first female CEO of Ogilvy. She talked about coming up in the madmen era of advertising, and how she had to fight to stand her ground and not have her ideas stolen. Those were great talks because we got to go into more depth and detail with these women. It was one speaker for smaller groups, 50 to 75 women. The talks were accessible and the women could talk to everyone afterwards individually.
It was a great way of keeping the community alive and connecting on a more regular basis. Personally, I’ve gotten to meet so many more women who were in the network that way. Now WIE is a mix of the bigger annual tent hall event and smaller salon master classes and talks that we do.
Why do you think focusing on women in business is so important now? I think there’s a stat from the World Economic Forum that says that women won’t reach parity until 2095. I think I saw that stat a number of years ago and I’m sure that number’s been pushed back. It’s unacceptable. Women are educated in high numbers. We form the larger percentages of college graduates and MBAs. We enter the workforce in equal numbers. Then something happens along the way and we just drop off the map. One, it’s about fairness. It’s about women who are educated and smart getting a fair chance and a fair crack at the nut.
Also, when you look at where we are now, fighting for healthcare and maternity leave and equal pay, these are really important issues that affect our families, our livelihood and our self-esteem. The reason that we’re in the situation we’re in is because these are decisions being made by men. We need to have a seat at the table. If we don’t have a seat at the table, we’re not part of the discussion, and these decisions are being made on our behalf. It runs across politics and business.
Tell us about next month’s festival, The Other Festival: WIE is generally aimed at women in the workplace navigating corporate culture like I was. It is a little bit more corporate in nature and content. The Other Testival is aimed at entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs. It’s more creative in tone and in direction. It was driven by the increase in female founders and creatives who were showing up at our WIE events, often bloggers. designers and architects.
I wanted to create something that appealed to that demographic. They are mostly the Millennial women who don’t want to wait in line. They want it yesterday and don’t see why they have to wait their turn. All power to them. This is about giving them the tools to see that because I think if we continue waiting in line, that 2095 will shift another hundred years.
There’s also a music and art component. I’ve gone to a number of music festivals the past couple of years. I’ve seen the audience around me, young women were there appreciating the music and spending money on tickets, yet all the headliners were men. Again, I was struck by the imbalance and unfairness. The Other Festival was borne out of those few things.
You’ve talked with so many women across the board. Do you see a difference between women who are in their mid-40s or older and the Millennial generation? Yes, massive. Millennial women don’t see the same barriers. Obviously, these barriers may surface later on, but they don’t’ see the same barriers to success. I think that’s because they’ve grown up in a digital age where you can put up a website and you have a business. Whereas for our generation, it was very much about following the steps. If you wanted to be successful, you have to have a degree and you have to work your way up. You needed support from institutions, from the system.
Young women are a lot more outspoken about their needs. They’re much more outspoken about finding balance. I would work every hour to prove myself. I don’t know if it was necessarily appreciated, and they’re like ‘F*** that. I want to have a good life. I want free time. I want work that motivates me. I don’t feel I need to pay my dues because I’m valuable.’ It’s a whole different approach. I think that we take Millennial women to task a bit on that. But men do it all the time. That’s what they’ve always done. I don’t think that we should come down as hard as we do on young women for being the same. We should encourage.
What was the easiest thing about starting WIE and what was the hardest? The easiest was getting speakers to participate. We were approaching all of these incredible, successful, high-powered, notable women and getting them to say yes. I think that was also because of at that time, in 2010, there just weren’t very many people doing the same thing. They were all enamored by this idea of empowering other women. The hardest, as it was then and continues to be is the financial aspect. Raising money, finding sponsors to share and just be valued in the same way.
I think that it’s hard to get people just to see the value in supporting initiatives like mine and putting money behind them. I’ve always seen this as a business, a social mission business, a social enterprise. People suggested that I become a non-profit, which is often the direction that we push women in. I said, ‘No. There’s a business case to be made here.’ That part has been hard.
What’s the most surprising thing that you’ve learned along the way doing this? Surprising is … I guess, it’s not a surprise. There are several women who have spoken at or have been a part of this who didn’t do it because they believe in the mission. They did it because it was right for their brand. I see it a lot.
What happens? Does it feel inauthentic? You can tell. I think often when people are inspired by something or someone, it’s because it’s coming from a place of truth as opposed to a prepared talking point. You can tell who’s real. It’s definitely been surprising. I used to see it a lot in the film industry. There was a time when every actress had to have a cause. They all were aligning with non-profits. Again, you can tell who truly believes in what they’re doing.
In your experience what’s the best way women can help other women? To give and to ask and to make introductions. By that, I mean, we should help other women realize their potential by supporting them. I have to do a lot of asking in my work and I know that women aren’t comfortable asking. I also think a lot of women are uncomfortable being asked for things. That’s wrong. I think that we should feel comfortable asking our friends to support us in business and they should feel comfortable asking us. Sometimes we’re doing the giving and sometimes we’re doing the receiving. I think it’s all good. We shouldn’t be offended.
Particularly, when we’ve achieved a level of success, to make introductions that can be helpful to one another. To be helpful, to support, just to lend our expertise. I think we should do it as often as we can. We should make introductions all day long because that’s what moves things along. Again, it’s how men operate. They do it because they see the business imperative. I think with women, we’re so uncomfortable. We can take offense when we’re asked for something. I do it anyway. If I get a no, all good. I move on. But I wish I saw more of that.
What has been your biggest success? With WIE, I would say that first year, that first conference, will definitely go down in history for me as the biggest success. It was one of these things where you have an idea, and you just make it happen, and it exceeds your wildest expectations. It couldn’t have been better. I think that there was some naivete in the reasons that it was so successful. We were just like ‘Let’s ask Melinda Gates’. Then she said ‘Yes.’ It was amazing.
What has been your biggest failure and what did you learn from it? In 2012, when I was pregnant. It was just a tough year. The conference happened three weeks after I gave birth. I had had morning sickness throughout my pregnancy. I didn’t have the support systems or networks in place to help me work through it. I wish I’d known more about how it was going to feel. I just wanted to soldier on regardless.
Three words that describe WIE: Educational, practical, creative.
Three words that describe you: Persistent, driven, caring.
What are your attributes that helps you succeed? I recover quickly. I recover quickly from setbacks, from rejections and failure, and I’m on to the next thing. I don’t hold on to it.
What motivates you? Generally, I’m motivated by injustice. The injustice I felt that I received and continue to experience. The injustices that women face and encounter every day drives and keeps me going. I’m inspired by my family, by my little boy. Wanting to create a better life for him.
Role models: I’m quite inspired right now by Bozoma Saint John. I’ve never met her. She’s from Ghana like me and I’m inspired to see a Ghanaian woman doing so well. I’ve seen her speak a couple of times and she seems so genuine. smart and funny. Like the real deal. Every time I read about her, I’m inspired to be better.
Best career advice you have received and what you would tell somebody starting out in your field: The best career advice I received was from a guy, who’s a very successful entrepreneur, a mogul, when I lived in LA. I remember I was feeling very down. I just started my business. Everyone was saying no. We had dinner and I was stuck. He actually looked quite puzzled by how I was taking the rejection. He said, ‘You know, every rejection spurs me on to prove them wrong.’ He used that rejection as fuel to prove everyone wrong. I guess, my career advice is, don’t take it personally. Prove them wrong.
For entrepreneurs, I would say have a million back-up plans. If you can keep on moving, so that every time there’s a setback or something doesn’t work out, you have another idea, another plan B. You have a go-to. Don’t hang everything on one idea but have several in your back pocket. Just keep it moving forward.
How hard would you say you work and how do you stay focused? God knows. Let’s see…Two things. I try to stay grateful. I try to remember all that’s good that I have. I remember the successes just to keep me motivated. I’m very self-motivated. I don’t know if it’s a star sign thing. I’m a Virgo. I’m just a worker. I keep a lot of lists and it keeps me on track. I’m always making lists–small lists, big lists, medium lists. In the morning, I start with three priorities. I get an immense satisfaction from completing my to-do list.
Besides The Other Festival in a couple of weeks, what’s next? I’m very excited about expanding the festival now to two days and have some ideas once the festival is over. To create an app that will be driven by female founders. I’m trying to launch a podcast as well.
Life goals: I want to lead a full life where I’m traveling, seeing friends and spending time with my family, and my career’s on track.
Daily goals: I never get enough sleep. And overall better self-care, which I am totally crap at.
Daily rituals: Lemon juice, water and cranberry juice to keep me alive; green tea to stay awake so I can keep working.
Favorite inspirational or motivational read: Right now, my friend, Tiffany Dufu’s book, Drop the Ball, is very helpful. That’s something I have to remind myself to do. She’s a very inspiring woman.
How do you unplug? Mostly walking. I try and walk everywhere I can. I find that I come up with ideas and problem solve when I’m just walking with no prior motive. Cycling also helps. In the summer, it’s great because I can walk and cycle.
Hidden talents/hobbies: I used to be a dancer. I love to dance. I was a pretty good dancer. When I have time, I’ll go to Alvin Ailey and take a class.
Do you collect anything? Notebooks. I didn’t realize I did until I was trying to think about the answer to this question. I was like, ‘What do I have a lot of that I don’t really need? Notebooks!’ I’m a list maker. I’m a note taker. I love beautiful notebooks. I love getting them in gift bags and I love buying them. I have stacks and stacks. I’m using them less and less because there’s just no need for them, but I have a notebook in every handbag just in case.
Favorite charity: Girls Who Code. Reshma Saujani founded it and it’s dear to my heart because I was a science-cy girl. I went to university to study engineering, and I dropped out because I felt uncomfortable. I was one of the very few, it was 1% female and I was the only woman of color. The environment was very bro and I just didn’t enjoy it. I’m glad she’s doing something to change that culture.
Favorite small indulgence: I have a gluten intolerance. I don’t get to eat bread and cakes like everyone else and I love bread and cakes. I’m always looking for gluten-free nibbles.
Album currently on Repeat: Solange’s Seat at the Table. It’s so good. She’s so good. I love her.
Scents that brings back memories: I don’t know if they make anymore but it’s called So Pretty by Cartier. I remember discovering Sephora in the South of France before it was a chain and such a big deal and they mostly just sold perfumes. I bought So Pretty there. Every time I put it on, people commented, ‘Oh, you smell nice’ without fail. I don’t think they make it anymore. That sucks.
Lucky charm: I don’t really have one but I guess when I put on a pair of high heels–I feel like a badass.
Favorite hour of the day: I’m a morning person. I love when I’m up at 6:00 AM and no one else is up. It’s quiet and I can just think. It’s also great because it’s like a mom witching hour. I’ll email my mom friends and they always respond at 5:36. Yes, the moms are up.