Notes From the Women Entrepreneurs Festival

by Amy-Willard Cross

The Women Entrepreneurs Festival is not a typical business conference. Rather, it's a celebration of women who run their own companies and those about to make the leap.

Here’s what’s different about WEF: Hugs. And clothes. Everyone greets one another with full-body presses -- something that you don’t get at other tech meet-ups. And these entrepreneurs wear some rocking outfits that you also don’t usually see at women’s business events: Toile de Jouy patchwork jackets, acid chartreuse dresses, and lace pantsuits. The purses are orange, or teal. There’s no need for somber black corporate attire -- these women can dress any way they want, because they work for themselves (or want to). As the stats show, more and more women are attracted to sartorial and financial independence, realizing that corporate America hasn’t made much room for them, no matter how far forward they lean.

Of course, the other striking difference at WEF is that the panelists are all women. There are female experts at the front of the room, the ones who’ve made it past startup phase and those who are even making revenue. (Three men were allowed to register as attendees; one of them was an investor, which should really be a gender-blind category.)

One of the male attendees caused a dustup in a follow-up email in which he advised attendees to avoid words like "small" and "little" when describing their business, and to instead talk more confidently, or "man-like." Some WEFers fired back, saying they liked to be able to talk that way among women -- the real world be damned.

WEF is segmented into three tracks: one for those about to start a company, one for those just gaining traction, and a third for those about to scale. The latter group spilled the beans on taking on VC money. (The big takeaway: if you accept money, you’re going to have to report on it. And often -- like weekly book reports, but worse. Plus you’ll have earn it back really quickly.) The best laugh was had by a woman whose company was acquiring her husband’s company. Not a marriage, not a merger -- but an acquisition.

At lunch, each table was divided into groups and assigned a topic. Table two’s issue was about encountering inappropriate comments from men when raising money or discussing business. Many derided the topic, saying one should just brush it all aside. At the same time, several had icky stories about a colleague or potential investor. However, most agreed that when someone in a position of power misbehaves, it can’t be ignored.

The afternoon was spent watching a handful of women pitch their businesses to a table packed with investors: VCs Shana Fisher and Kirsten Green, angel investor Joanne Wilson, and former Goldmanista Deborah Jackson, who founded the accelerator Women Innovate Mobile. It wasn’t clear why some were pitching and what all of them were asking for. Their appeals lacked the concise shark-tank equations of $100,000 for 10% of the company. Precise questions make it easier to say “yes."

Next year, why not have this lunch crowd become the investors? The room would vote on which company to fund. Everyone who is able (checking account balance allowing) could write a $100 check to the startup that got the most votes and an immediate raise of capital right then and there.

That would be real-time crowdfunding... and something to celebrate.