Thursday, August 2, 2012

Women Entrepreneurs Meet in SF to Discuss Success, Diversity, and Growing Your Business

On the 32nd floor of the Westin St. Francis
A CHANCE TO NETWORK Capacity building, government contracting and global expansion. Astra Women's Business Alliance made those its top priorities this year at the organization’s 16th annual reception, workshop and awards luncheon last week on the 32nd floor of the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.

The event was a chance for woman-owned businesses like Bishop-Wisecarver to acquire new knowledge about how to grow and expand their network with like-minded leaders and effectively pursue government and major corporate contracts. We attended the event with other members of Astra, a regional partner organization of the larger national Women's Business Enterprise National Council, which certified us as a woman-owned business.

The lineup of speakers was impressive, as was the roster of the 140-or-so attendees making it a sold-out conference. Our WBENC certification required extensive paperwork on us as a linear guide manufacturer, but now we are officially part of a rich network of forward-thinking entrepreneurs and diversity procurement contacts.

Lynn Tilton
STAR OF THE SHOW Keynote Lynn Tilton stole the show. Dubbed the "private equity boss in 4-inch stilettos" by NPR, the flashy Brooklyn native runs her own private equity firm that buys up companies on the brink of bankruptcy and restructures them into thriving businesses.

She founded Patriarch Partners, LLC, a $8 billion holding company since 2000 after retiring from a successful career on Wall Street. The single mother and no-nonsense investment pioneer made a name for herself as both financier and industrialist, saving about 250,000 American jobs by snatching up distressed loans and turning around the businesses embroiled in debt.

[ Barbara Walters recently profiled Tilton on 20/20 — check it out here ]

Tilton's mission to save jobs came out of a personal spiritual journey, she said. A divorced single mom at 23, she started making a way for herself on Wall street after earning degrees at Yale and Columbia. She worked her way up in a man's world, she said. And on the other side of it, in 1998, she considered retirement.

But in 2000, she figured out a way to make money off of collateralized loan obligations (CLOs), patented the process and, through it, built an empire. Today, she owns about 75 private companies through Patriarch Partners. Twelve of them are WBENC certified.

Her speech touched on topics like the ailing economy, her motivation to continue her work and the backlash that ensues from being a female authority figure, especially one so polarizing. What gets her through the trials, she said, are the people she works, her employees. When they have the grit to power through near-bankruptcy and turn things around, that empowers her as a leader. It also gives her a sense of personal responsibility for the future of her companies and the people who work for them.

"As a leader of a company, if you don’t believe that every failure is your fault, then you won’t be successful," she said matter-of-factly. "So you better own it, know it and take responsibility for it. Anything that’s going on is ours to change. No one else will care as much as you do about your business. In the end, it's all yours. And knowing that, we have to figure out how to lead."

It's a pride of ownership that a lot of women in the room could relate to, considering it was a gathering of female business owners.

FACE TIME Curious about what it's like to manage assets to the magnitude Tilton has taken on? "It's time-consuming," she stressed, then paused, "No, life-consuming." Still, the manufacturing mogul manages to have face time with each company at least once a quarter, with some more than others, she said.

"I do need to get people thinking in a certain way," she said. "Having done so much of this, you have the ability to cut to the chase. My business weakness can be that it's too much 'me,' but in the end, when you build something based on embedded talent, then you can't scale the same way, you can't be as successful  in the long term."

Judy Bradt (left) 
MAKING THE PITCH Several other high-powered women who took the podium echoed those thoughts about ownership, leadership and personal responsibility. That strong sense of ownership is what's going to give you the passion to drive your company's message, agreed Judy Bradt, another panelist and author of the book Government Contracts Made Easier. That pride of ownership deepens the message — it makes it more earnest.

"When your pitch is focused so much on the product and service you sell and not the problem you solve, it's shallow," said Bradt, who runs Summit Insight, a consulting company that helps business owners obtain game-changing government contracts.

Pamela Wallace, who wrote the screenplay for the 1985 Harrison Ford movie Witness agreed that the personal ownership of your product, service and idea will win people over and make you successful. Wallace was on one of the workshop panels, too, that day to talk about perfecting the pitch — a talent that earned her an enviable reputation in Hollywood.

"Believe in your product," said Wallace. "Keep your message honest and consistent, whether you're talking to an intern or the head of a studio. If you have somebody on your side, you'll get to the top, to the decision-maker. So be nice to everyone ... you never know who they know."

About 140 attendees met in SF for the annual event