DWEN: The Importance of a Safe Space for Women in Business
Last week I was fortunate to attend the Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) Summit in Singapore. This was a two-day event that brought together international media, Dell executives, and 150 female entrepreneurs who typically earn $2-3 million in revenue or funding.
The DWEN summit is the annual touchpoint and the pinnacle of the effort that Dell has been putting into the Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network. For the past ten years, Dell aimed at connecting hundreds of female entrepreneurs across the world with sources of capitals, technology, networks, and knowledge.
Dell's drive to empower women in technology and business is not to be found in a desire to close the investment gap or improve diversity. Instead, Dell believes that "women share a unique approach to business; they are using innovative technology to reach customers and utilize data in unprecedented ways. Women especially understand that it's not the technology itself that is important, but what connections, solutions, and changes it enables you to make." Of course, as women are empowered, the investment gap closes, and diversity becomes less of an issue one female founder or female CEO at a time. Yet, there is a vast difference between believing that women in business make a difference and facilitating women in business for the sake of diversity.
Over the years I have attended many "women in tech" and "women in business" events, and at every single one, I left with a better perspective, new learnings, and a sense of belonging. After two days at DWEN, however, that sense of empowerment was the strongest I ever felt and was fueled by the sheer energy of the attendees.
Three main factors made the DWEN summit such a memorable experience: No selling, genuine first-hand advice, and a safe space for total openness.
No Hard Sell
When an event is sponsored or hosted by a vendor, it is extremely hard not to find more or less disguised sales pitches sprinkled throughout the event. Often, it is not even the host or main sponsor, but the speakers who have a book or service to pitch aimed at improving your marketing or sales reach or whatever else they happen to think relevant for the audience.
At the DWEN summit, there was none of this. Aside from a couple of references to Dell services and a showcase of products in the main ballroom, you would not even know you were at an event hosted by Dell. The sponsors who were present were there offering advice and support to those who were interested, but not a single attendee was approached cold.
This might seem like a small contribution to the success of the event, but psychologically it helped to underline the focus on the social impact Dell is planning to have rather than leaving the feeling to participants that it is all about growing their business.
What was also refreshing, was that every single speaker on stage was there to share their story and provide some practical advice to the audience without any pitch for a book, or a seminar or anything else. As a matter of fact, the only book mentioned was a free copy of "Train the brave" we all received by the fantastic Margie Warrell who was the event inspirational speaker.
Real First-Hand Experience
One thing I particularly enjoyed from all the speakers was the very personal, first-hand stories of both struggle and success they shared. The Summit covered several topics: tech solution on how to grow a business, social impact and employee engagement, how to do business in Asia, how to access resources and capital doing business with multinationals and more.
Every conversation was not based on theories and academic discussions, but on concrete examples with business outcomes that the audience could relate to and make relevant to their own business.
The breath of industries, geographies, and personal cultural backgrounds represented in the room also helped with relevance and a feeling of inclusion. It was quite astonishing, how different we were and yet how similar in the personal hurdles faced, the business challenges overcome, and the goals set.
The most significant factor that contributed to the success of the Summit, and the reason why hundreds of women have been investing in it for the past ten years, must be the safe environment that it offers. Talking to a few of the participants on the last evening in Singapore, we all agreed that we felt it was ok to open up, to be vulnerable by admitting that we did not have all the answers. At the same time, we were sharing our experience, providing support, and offering the answers we had with no ego or presumption of being superior to anyone else in the room.
We often hear about women fighting over the seat at the table, but possibly because at DWEN we all felt that in a way or another we had made it to the table, there was certainly a sense of camaraderie that I have not experienced anywhere else.
It might be unfair, but I can't help but think that the limited number of men at the Summit empowered us to open up in such a way that is often impossible when you feel you are a "guest" in their space as it often happens at events, tech events in particular.
The Best Advice
Over the two days in Singapore, I had many fascinating conversations filled with smarts, soul, and humor, but there were three points that I will go back to over the years:
"We do not want women having to choose between career and family" – Minister for Culture Community and Youth of Singapore. This should be both a company and a government imperative when it comes to parental leave and childcare.
"Find your rocks: purpose, family, and spirit. Don't sweat the small stuff but focus on impact" – Sabrina Tan – We might still not "have it all", but I am convinced that at least focusing on the impact we can have rather than sweating the small stuff will allow us to use our time and energy better.
"Give yourself permission to ask outrageously!" – Sherry Boger – Often times, what we might think is an outrageous ask is something a male counterpart would not think twice about asking.