Dee Poku

Penny: I was just looking at a list of the women who have spoken at your symposiums – Arianna Huffington, Melinda Gates, Nancy Pelosi, Christy Turlington, Donna Karan – it reads like our dream issue! How do you get them?

Dee: Initially, it was a matter of drawing on my experience of working in the entertainment industry. First, I think about whom the initial ask should be, who they’ll bring with them and how that will attract everybody else.

P: It sounds a bit like selecting a magazine cover star – you need a headline act in whose company the rest will feel comfortable.

D: Absolutely. Personal relationships are key in this: who’s a friend that could be the first building block? Then I wouldn’t just write a letter to Nancy Pelosi and say, “Hey, come and speak here!” I think about how a person’s perspective would benefit the overall themes, rather than just creating a list of big names.

P: Tell me how you describe WIE Network to a potential speaker.

D: I start with numbers. For a politician like Nancy, I’ll talk about stats she knows well – the scarcity of women in politics and how important role models like her are for younger women. I’m appealing to personal interests of theirs that align with our overall mission of connecting emerging women leaders with more established trailblazers. Then I ensure they’re aware of who’s spoken previously – Queen Rania of Jordan, Diane von Furstenberg or Nora Ephron – stressing the fact that they’ll be in great company, past and present.

P: There seem to be a number of “women and empowerment” conferences all of a sudden – Tina Brown’s Women in the World summit is one notable example. How do you distinguish WIE from the rest?

D: Our sessions are explicitly about empowering women in positions of leadership, whatever their income. With something like TED you have to be invited and pay an entry fee of $7,000 I think, so that’s an audience of already successful people.

P: What’s your ticket price?

D: $250. Plus we’re not just running master classes by successful women and offering networking opportunities; our programme’s solutions-driven. We identify a problem; last year in New York, for instance, we had a panel on negotiation. As you can imagine, that attracted a full room. You know, if female graduates fail that first test and take less money than they deserve, going into their first jobs, they rarely make back that difference in their lifetime. So offering advice on that topic we had the Hollywood agent Beth Swofford, who’s a partner at CAA, along with Neera Tanden, who works for a Washington DC think tank called CAP. They’re from different arenas, but both know all about how selling, pitching and negotiating.

P: That sounds incredibly useful and not just for graduates. How personal is your choice of subjects? Are those women solving Dee’s problems as well as everyone else’s?

D: It’s all personal. There’s no topic or speaker up on that stage that I’m not personally interested in, because I see myself as the audience. You know, when you start out in a corporation, you think you have the same chances as everybody else. I was the same until I got into middle management and that’s where you see the drop-off in female employees. Those are the women I’m targeting. At the moment, we do two conferences per year – as well as New York we’ve done them in Cape Town and Lagos – but eventually, I’d love to do six. I listen to friends to stay on top of global issues and have many conversations with my board of advisors, who come from a range of industries.

P: What’s the incentive for the speakers; are they paid?

D: No, I have to be strict about that because I don’t have the budgets and if I make a concession for someone and others find out, then I’m screwed. The incentive is that by participating, they’re helping to guide other women and doing their bit. We’ve had one or two speakers who took part purely to enhance their public image, but that rarely happens.

P: Someone told me that in the States there are agencies that advise celebrities on which charities they should be associated with.

D: Oh yes; that’s huge! It’s usually their publicists. The received view is that every actress should have a cause, because if they’re in the public eye and making lots of money they need to be seen to be “giving back”.

P: Interesting you say actresses specifically. Do you think it’s more important for women to seem charitable?

D: Definitely. The dresses and the glamour that go with being on the red carpet can be viewed as undermining their gravitas. That doesn’t really apply to male actors as much.

P: You launched WIE Network in the same year we launched The Gentlewoman, 2010. Since then, it feels as if there’s been a tsunami of women-centred projects and writing. Would you say your previous marketing experience helped you to identify a potential gap in the “market”?

D: I definitely sensed the beginnings of some sort of movement. I was noticing women in business and from other sectors who weren’t traditional benefactors, starting to find ways of coming together. Those events weren’t necessarily about giving money, but they were tackling problems and to me, that seemed the best use of the new energy.

P: There’s a limited vocabulary with which to describe our field; do you get sick of the words “empowerment”, “inspirational”, and my personal bête noire, “strong women”?

D: I really do! Actually, our advisory board and I just spent a few weeks brainstorming alternatives to describe what we do. We looked at what other organisations were using and we really liked TED’s slogan “Ideas Worth Spreading”. Ours is “Conversations Worth Having”.

P: That’s a good one. It’s not exclusively female, though.

D: Now we’ve established what works for our audience, the next step is to get more male voices involved. A solely-female conference feels a bit like an echo chamber with everyone agreeing on the same subjects: “There aren’t enough women and this is what we should do.” “Yes, I agree.” “Great!” That’s where the solution-driven approach comes into its own. The problems may be gendered but the actionable takeaways we’re offering are not. The dream is when a delegate – female or male – leaves the room thinking, “I was stuck and now I get what to do about it.”

Interview by Penny Martin. Photograph courtesy of Dee Poku. No stranger to a conference herself, Penny Martin will be speaking at Here 2014 at the Royal Geographical Society in London on June 13. Would you like to be the next featured reader? Then sign-up sister and tell us about yourself!