What I Learned at the WE Festival (Not Just for Entrepreneurs)

I spent last Thursday at the WE Festival. It’s a conference for women entrepreneurs (WE =  women entrepreneurs) that was founded and is run by Joanne Wilson, Path Forward’s Board Co-chair. Joanne is a force of nature and the festival was just AWESOME. To be in a room full of so many smart, passionate, ambitious women was inspiring. You can share in the inspiration – all of the festival sessions are available online.

While I learned a lot that will apply to my new role as a nonprofit founder and chief executive, I actually learned a few lessons that I think are applicable to job searches and career management.

First, was Joanne’s opening speech, which ended on the Tweetable line, “Our businesses are our voice. Use them.” It was a very inspiring idea in a room full of women building amazing businesses. I wholeheartedly agree and I’d expand on Joanne’s point — our WORK is our voice. The reason I’m so passionate about helping women get back to work is because I know that more women in more roles across every industry and in every sector of society will change the world. Work is not just what we do to pay our bills and keep us busy (most parents don’t really need that second one!). It is how we shape and change and influence the world. The afternoon “Power Panel” included Danielle Fong of LightSail Energy. This is a woman who is quite literally trying to save the world — her company is attempting to slow down climate change through energy storage technology.

Meanwhile, on the “Think Big, Start Small” panel was Amanda Hesser from Food52. A question came up about how you get through the tough times — when you don’t get the funding, don’t make the sale, the tech didn’t work. Amanda said “The word that comes to mind for me is grit. You just have to keep going.” Again, I think this pertains much more broadly. If I think back on my career there have been plenty of challenges. I think one of the secrets to my success has been that I just kept going. And I think it certainly pertains to searching for a job. When I was searching for a job after having been laid off there were some low moments. One interviewer told me that I should stop talking about my experience with one company because “it’s a failed business model and it doesn’t make you look good.” Fortunately it was a phone interview so after I hung up I was able to crawl into bed and cry! But I kept going and eventually found Return Path — a job that changed my entire career and my life.

On the same panel was Kate Whiting, CEO of Educents. She told a similar story about grit, but specifically talked about fundraising in Silicon Valley as a woman. She booked 10-20 meetings a day on Sand Hill Road (the famous road where many of the top venture capitalists have their offices). She didn’t book the meetings until she had them back-to-back. This did two things for her. First, it meant she was honing her pitch. By the last meeting of the day she had it down. But it also allowed her to say things like “Sorry to cut us short but I have another meeting just up the street.” She was suddenly in demand, her company was hot (why are all these other guys meeting with her?) and she started getting funding. A similar strategy absolutely applies to job searches. It’s certainly not easy to get an interview, but take any one you get. Every one is a chance to tell your story and the more you tell it the better you will get at it. And, it’s not uncommon for interviewers to ask you who else you are talking to. When you can name a few other companies it sends the signal that you are in play, which makes that recruiter all the more eager to continue, and maybe even accelerate, the conversation.

And finally, a great tidbit from the aforementioned Danielle Fong. An audience member asked the panelists how they fit mentoring and helping other women into their very busy lives. Danielle said that when people reach out to her through social channels with a specific and easily fulfilled request, she will always grant it. She said it’s the people who reach out and say something like “I love what you are doing and I’d love your help” that she actually can’t help. So, here’s  a tip — when you reach out to someone, especially someone you know is very busy — write a very clear and easily fulfilled action. It won’t always work, but your chance of success goes up dramatically when you have a specific request.