In collaboration with Civic Nation, the White House held the inaugural United State of Women Summit, a global gathering for women June 13-15 in Washington D.C. Hosted by the First Lady, Michelle Obama and media mogul, Oprah Winfrey, speakers for the Summit were recruited from every walk of life from celebrity figures to political leaders and grassroots activists. Just days before the Summit convened Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama were confirmed as speakers, delivering poignant messages to women.
Biden spoke on domestic violence, an issue he has always been passionate about. “When women and girls are physically abused, they live with those scars the rest of their lives. There’s been a great deal of progress but the work is not over. We have to get men involved in the fight. We have to get them to take the pledge to speak up and speak out when women are victimized.” He also talked about the role college campuses play in keeping women safe in a space where it has been statistically proven that sexual assault is rampant; and men taking a stand in the midst of misogynist conversations and doing their part to dismantle cultural and religious systems that support and promote violence against women.
After a plenary by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 11-year-old CEO of Me & the Bees Lemonade, Malaika Ulmer took the stage to introduce, President Barack Obama. President Obama began his address by declaring himself a “feminist” which was welcomed by cheers from the 5000 women in attendance.
“Of course I have no choice (about being a feminist) in my house,” he said and went on to talk about the great loves of his life – his wife, his daughters and how he counts the strength, confidence and openness of his children among his greatest successes.
“I see a future where women will lead half of our businesses and make up half of the positions in congress – a world where our girls know they can hold any job, run any company, compete on any field, perform on any stage and science the heck out of any challenge. The good news is, this is the future my daughter’s generation already believes in. They believe every door is open to them. They’re not engaging in any kind of self-censorship. They’re not going to hold themselves back. It couldn’t occur to them they couldn’t rise to the top of whatever field they choose. It wouldn’t occur to them not to accept all people no matter how they identify or who they love. They think discrimination is for losers. They think it’s weird we haven’t already had a woman president,” said Obama.
He also talked about equal pay for women, an issue he has been especially passionate about and the importance of legislation that protects women and mothers in the workplace and supports affordable childcare. He said the role of Hilary Clinton as America’s first female presidential nominee “could play in keeping the momentum for women’s rights going strong.”
While having speakers from America’s elite was impressive, the United State of Women Summit also created space for attendees to interact with top business leaders. The first day of the Summit was hosted by the United States Small Business Association. Key sessions were led by women executives from every field. Fortune 500 CEO’s, technology czars, best-selling authors and successful entrepreneurs were among the women who graced the stage.
The opening keynote address was given by Maria Contreras Sweet, Chief Administrator for the SBA. Contreras Sweet, the daughter of a blue collar worker, shared her story of growing up Latina and being selected by President Obama to help usher in a new era of women in business.
“The model for business I wanted to create was based on empowerment. I didn’t want to just teach women to buy the hamburger I wanted to help them buy the restaurant. You have to do something every day toward fulfilling your goals. If women can commit to that they have a good chance of being successful,” said Sweet.
The SBA also invited Ulmer to participate in an arm-chair discussion with Sweet about the success of her company and her rise to fame.
When asked about the recipe for her success, Ulmer said connecting her business with a cause she was passionate about made a huge difference. It was protecting bees that drew the attention of mega distributor Whole Foods who quickly signed on to carry her product.
But Ulmer’s biggest break would come from her participation on the Shark Tank TV Show where her project was selected for $60,000 in financial backing by FUBU CEO, Daymond John.
“My family’s support was a primary factor in the success of my business. My mother is my marketing manager. My brother is the cool geek guy that manages the IT part of my business and my father keeps it all together,” she said. The dialogue with Malaika segued into a powerhouse conversation about money and specifically, how to get investors to back your project.
A panel of high-powered entrepreneurs convened to share strategies on getting investors on board including Lisa Price, CEO of Carol’s Daughter, who started her multi-million dollar bath and beauty product line in her kitchen. The success of the Carol’s Daughter brand attracted investors like Jada Pinkett Smith and garnered distribution through national retail outlets like Target and Ulta. Price’s foray on the Home Shopping Network ultimately made her products a household name. After recording mega earnings to the tune of more than 20 million in sales, Carol’s Daughter was acquired by L’Oréal who wanted a line that drew a multi-cultural consumer base.
“It’s important to never give up when you’re on the path of success. Crises will happen, you can’t avoid it but the storms do pass. And you and your business are stronger for having survived them,” said Price about her incredible success over the last two decades.
Kathleen Berman and Sophie La Montague, founders of Georgetown Cupcakes served up yet another example of successful women entrepreneurs who had small beginnings with starting to bake in their mother’s kitchen. Weathering the storms of the up and downs of their early years in business helped them grow and expand their vision and ultimately landing a reality TV show on the TLC channel.
The secret to their success? They don’t give up in the face of small setbacks. “We view our challenges as temporary. Sometimes you fall short of your goal. That doesn’t mean it’s a wash, it just means you might have to take a different path to get to your destination,” said the owners.
A panel discussed the challenges women face in accessing venture and other forms of capital to help business owners sustain their company. According to statistics released by the SBA, in the United States, women control $11.2 trillion of the $28.6 trillion investable assets in America. Women are, however, sorely underrepresented in angel investing, venture capital and the private equity industry.
Speakers included Sara Wilson, Senior Director of Walmart’s Women’s Economic Empowerment Project who offered insight on the ways mega corporations such as Walmart support new and existing businesses. “Walmart and other corporations offer funding to support training and mentorship of women business owners. Research, collaboration and project excellence are key making a business successful,” said Wilson.
Connie Evans, president of the Association for Enterprise Opportunity Organization (AEO Works) and organization that links business owners with Micro lenders, spoke in depth about securing funding for start-ups and non-profit projects.
Evans encouraged women business owners and non-profit professionals to link up with SBA’s and non-profit centers in their area. “Mentorship and collaboration is key to moving a business or project forward. If you have a business or organization that probably won’t qualify for traditional financing, you may want to search for mission-based lenders who are interested in community development,” she said.
The Summit also featured grassroots activists and speakers from the entertainment industry who are making strides in women’s empowerment that included creator and executive producer of the televised gala, Black Girls Rock, Beverly Bond who gave a riveting message to attendees, a message that had some women in tears.
Bond said, “Black Girls Rock is at the forefront of a paradigm shift where Black women’s narratives are becoming more prominent in mainstream media. Our overall presence in society is being elevated. However, there is still so much work to be done to advance equality for Black and other marginalized women.” She continued, “We live in a world where 60 percent of Black girls have experienced sexual abuse before reaching the age of 18. We live in a world where our reproductive rights continue to be challenged and our rights to make decisions about our own bodies continue to be infringed upon. We live in a world where a Stanford University swimmer receives only six months for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. And, we live in a world where a front runner for the United States presidency can hurl crass insults toward women about everything from their looks to their menstrual cycle. Our society remains deeply entrenched in misogynistic and chauvinistic norms that denigrate and dehumanize women. If we want to see transformative change, we must be the change.”
The Summit concluded with a historic conversation between First Lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey whose visibility and bravery have redefined what it means to be a woman in America. Their collective stories have moved women to strive for goals that the world might’ve deemed unreachable simply because of their gender.
First Lady Michelle Obama opened the dialogue with a tribute to the 49 slain LGBT Floridians killed at the Pulse nightclub by a religious extremist and homophobe.
“I want to start this conversation by remembering those who were lost and injured in Orlando, Florida. In tragic times like these, we must come together to support each other, love each other – not put each other down.”
Oprah opened the conversation by asking Obama Michelle on how she deals with the pressure of living life in the public eye.
“Michelle, as you know, we live in a world where we are constantly bombarded by images that encourage us to try to be liked by people. It’s a lot to live up to. Particularly you, who has had to face this both as your own woman and as the President’s wife, what can you share that will help us stand more inside of ourselves and own that space?”
Michelle Obama replied, “Our first job in life as women is to get to know ourselves. We spend our time pleasing, satisfying, and looking to the world to define us. If we live by limited definitions, we miss out on a lot of who we are. I came into this situation with a pretty clear sense of myself. Some of that came with age; some of it came from experience. Some of it came from being fortunate enough to be raised by a loving mother and strong father who loved me dearly. When you hear the smack talking from the outside world it’s easy to brush that off when you know who you are. If you’re going out into the world as a professional and you don’t know who you are, don’t know how much you’re worth – you end up counting on the kindness and goodness of others when you should be getting it for yourself.”
With a nod of understanding, Oprah continued “You’re talking about self-value. Self-value is the thread that runs through everything. It’s the thing that allows you to stand in your own truth. One of the things that Maya Angelou always used to tell me was, “Baby, you need to know that you alone are enough – that you in and of yourself are enough.”
“I hope that [self-value] is one of the big takeaways from this summit,” First Lady, Michelle Obama said during the closing remarks.
Editor’s note: For more information on the United State of Women Summit visit www.unitedstateofwomen.org. Many of the sessions can be viewed on-line at http://www.themarysue.com/united-state-of-women/
Editor’s note: Ifalade TaShia Asanti is an award-winning journalist and contributing editor to Denver Urban Spectrum. For more information on her work, visit www.officialtashiaasanti.com.