A Week With WE Empower

By DJ Nelson, Creative Director and Staff Writer 

The WE (Women Entrepreneurs) Empower Challenge is a global business competition for social entrepreneurs who are advancing the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Challenge honors five women leaders, one from each of the five U.N. regions. As a student judge, I helped select this year’s awardees:

Lina Khalifeh, Founder and Owner of SheFighter (Jordan)

Christelle Kwizera, Founder of Water Access Rwanda (Rwanda)

Leah Lizarondo, CEO and Co-Founder of 412 Food Rescue (United States)

Zoya Lytvyn, Founder of Novopecherska K12 Private School and Osvitoria (NGO) (Ukraine)

Karla Ruiz Cofiño, Founder of The Digital Awareness Program (Guatemala)

From my participation as a student judge, I was put in a drawing, and ultimately selected, to join the five winners in New York City for a week. This is thanks to the support of ASU (the founder and co-lead of the WE Empower program) and staff from Thunderbird, the Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation, and the Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law. Because WE Empower paid for the hotel costs and ASU paid for my flight and travel expenses, I was able to have an amazing experience. Here’s a list of the week’s activities and events.

Saturday, September 21

From around the world, the five selected entrepreneurs met in New York City. From the airport, everyone’s first stop was to check into their rooms at The New Yorker Hotel, not too far from Times Square. Once all had arrived, dinner had been arranged at an Airbnb in the Upper Westside, which was reserved for staff from Vital Voices (one of the partners for the event) and others. We met in the lobby of the hotel and two cars were ordered to get all of us to the welcome dinner.

Everyone was already breaking the ice with questions about travel, discussions about their businesses, and looking forward to the week ahead. Pitch night was also a topic looming in the air, as the entire next day had been set aside for preparation.

Sunday, September 22

All photos courtesy of DJ Nelson.

At around 8:00 a.m., we returned to the Airbnb. To start the day, the Vital Voices team had arranged a light breakfast while they went over the agenda for the week. After that, they arranged some fun activities to break the ice. This was no small talk like the last night, though, but about the business at hand and what they could learn from each other.

Next on the agenda were individual sessions with a public speaking consultant and coach, Aaron Kisner, founder of the Hundredth Monkey Collective. These one-on-ones were to fine tune each of the five participants’ pitches for the following day’s event. From a glance, it appeared there would be plenty of downtime to walk over to Central Park, as each session was about 45 minutes. Instead, while waiting for their turn, the women practiced, made phone calls, and put in the time for work. (I did homework since I’m a student). It was incredible to see and feel the energy of productivity in the space. Just as an observer, I was learning a little bit more about what it was like to be an entrepreneur.

In the evening, we headed over to the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice for the U.N. Solutions Summit Reception. After being cooped up, everyone was in the networking spirit and spread quickly around the room, meeting the Solutions Summit winners and other attendees.

Monday, September 23

Once again, we returned to the Airbnb for breakfast. This morning, though, we were joined by Raegan Moya-Jones, co-founder of Aden + Anais, Inc. and Saint Luna. She recently published What It Takes, the story of her entrepreneurial journey from the kitchen table to a 100-million-dollar global business. As she told this story, she became more and more relatable to the WE Empower winners. There was a lot of “Yes!” and “Same!”, and they were learning from each other at that moment. Even though I am not an entrepreneur, the big takeaway from this session for me was knowing the difference between working in your business versus on your business, and knowing there is a right time to be doing each activity.

After a very inspiring morning, it was back to work on pitch night preparation. Individual coaching sessions started up again with Aaron, and went until the middle of the afternoon. Then it was time to get dressed and ready for the main event.

Pitch night was hosted by fashion icon Diane Von Furstenberg (DVF) at her studio in the Chelsea neighborhood. Prior to the start of the event, everyone was invited to her office space, which was decorated with art and personal photographs.

For the pitch, each of the women went on stage, told their stories, and awed the audience with their change-making businesses. A panel of judges asked each of them questions about the specifics of their operations, how they intend to expand, and more. Once the pitches were all given, the audience voted. The rumor was that DVF didn’t want to choose, so she thought it best to have everyone decide.

The votes were in. Leah Lizarondo was the winner of a $20,000 grant! Photos were taken with everyone on stage, drinks and food circulated around the room, and everyone was happy. Although only one winner was announced, from looking around the room, all of the other finalists were proud of their accomplishments and looked like winners too.

Afterward, everyone headed to a nearby restaurant for a celebration dinner.

Tuesday, September 24 

This day started with a walk to the offices of Salesforce and BMO. The meetings with these partners and GrocvYourBiz were intended to provide information about the companies and how their products and services could be utilized to expand each of the women’s businesses. The access these women were getting from these networks was priceless.

After lunch was the TED event “We the Future,” hosted by Skoll Foundation and the U.N. Foundation. It was a small stage and our tribe of women took over the front and second-row seating easily. Presenters ranged from musicians, photographers, and artists to journalists, CEOs, and physicians. Even with so many different backgrounds, their stories were brought together by ideas, analyses, and solutions to the problems and issues around the world today. That evening, we also attended the “Making Global Goals Local Business” reception and networking event hosted by the Global Compact Network at SAP’s Next-Gen office.

Wednesday, September 25 

Travel this morning did not go so well. One car had managed to make it without delay to the restaurant where we were meeting Geraldine Laybourne for breakfast, but the second car got stuck in roadblocks due to the motorcades headed to the U.N. headquarters (UNHQ). About 45 minutes later, the second group showed up. Geraldine suggested that next year everyone should just come to her place for a pajama party and breakfast.

It was pretty obvious at this point that these smaller, intimate events had a high impact on the five WE Empower women.

Due to the delay at the start, we showed up late to the U.N. Solutions Summit at UNHQ, where we listened to the presentations of a handful of the Solution Summit winners. At one point, one of the Vital Voices staff members snuck off to the gift shop and bought SDG pins for everyone.

Next on the agenda was a lunch meeting with the U.N. Global Compact representatives, followed by a podcast recording session at Akin Gump, and another session with Aaron to prepare for the evening presentation.

Back at UNHQ, the Challenge winners had another opportunity to showcase their social enterprises by presenting at the U.N. Trailblazing Women reception hosted by U.N. Global Compact. It was an exciting event, as actress Jameela Jamil also shared the stage.

Thursday, September 26 

Similar to Tuesday, the day started with meetings at Fast Company and Dentons for an editorial session and training on global legal practices, respectively. It was a learning opportunity for the women to see how to best deal with public relations and journalists, and things to keep in mind legally when founding and running a company.

Our next destination was the Met for Seneca Women’s annual Fast Forward Women’s Innovation Forum. Featured were conversations about how leaders and companies are using their power to accelerate women’s participation in the economy, driving progress for women and for the world. Speakers include designer and CEO Tory Burch; Adaire Fox-Martin, Executive Board Member at SAP; Arianna Huffington, CEO of Thrive Global; Valerie Jarrett, former Senior Advisor to President Obama; James Quincey, Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company; and Jean-Pascal Tricoire, Chairman and CEO of Schneider Electric, among others.

This evening included a special dinner event at Craft Restaurant with the G5 Collective (meaning goal 5 of the SDGs). G5 is a multi-sectoral coalition of partners (NGOs, foundations, and corporations) created in 2015 to promote the advancement of the gender-related targets of the SDGs.

Friday, September 27 

This morning we got to sleep in. Around 10:00 a.m., we returned to the offices of Akin Gump for a discussion with Joel Maybury, the U.S. Department of State’s Acting Director of the Office of Global Women’s Issues.

Afterward, we stayed at the office to give the WE Empower awardees a chance to debrief and reflect on the week. Some of the activities were repeated from the first day, and it showed how much they had learned. Many discoveries were made.

To close the week, the staff and awardees had their last dinner together. Over the past seven days, this had become a tightknit group. At the table together, we listened to each other’s love stories and told some secrets.

This week had been amazing, and these women were unforgettable.

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