Last November, Laura Gallagher, the founder and CEO of The Creative Company, found herself at a celebration of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations Plaza in New York. She was in New York anyway, and as an entrepreneur with over 25 years of experience, she decided to check it out.
At the event, she heard from powerful women like Mindy Grossman, now the CEO of Weight Watchers, and Kay Koplovitz, founder of the USA Network. She listened to them tell stories of struggle, and she realized something.
“They were amazing people, but they weren't that different than me,” she said. “They all had to persevere, have grit and overcome obstacles to be where they are now.
“They did it, I could do it. It made me more brave.”
She wanted to bring that experience back to her home state. On Tuesday, Nov. 14, Wisconsin will celebrate its first Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Wisconsin (WEDWisconsin) at the Monona Terrace. It aims to support all women, not just those who have started their own business, and help them live out of an entrepreneurial mindset.
A GLOBAL EXPERIENCE
Women’s Entrepreneurship Day is celebrated on Nov. 19 in 144 countries around the world. Mayor Paul Soglin has declared a city Women’s Entrepreneurship Day in Madison, and Gov. Scott Walker has declared the whole week, from Nov. 14 to Nov. 19, “Women's Entrepreneurship Week.”
After the UN event, Gallagher immediately applied to be the Wisconsin ambassador for the WED program. She was accepted and decided that rather than putting on a singular event like a breakfast, she wanted a day-long event jam-packed with speakers. She called her decision the “riskiest business move of my life.”
“I've put everything on the line to make this conference happen. Every nickel. Every resource. Every network connection. Every everything,” she wrote in a recent update.
But she said risk is a part of any entrepreneurial venture.
“We don’t know how the story’s going to end,” she said. “We make the leap.”
‘EXPONENTIAL ECONOMIC IMPACT’
The day is focused on fighting disparities that women in business face. Women are majority owners of 38 percent of the businesses in the country, but only receive about 2 percent of venture funding. Women receive business loans at lower rates than men, a struggle that's even harder for women of color.
Tuesday’s event is a step to correct statistics like this. By supporting women, the event will have “exponential economic impact,” Gallagher said.
“Four hundred women are about to go to Monona Terrace,” Gallagher said. “They’re going to be equipped, and they’re going to be resourced, and they’re going to be supported and encouraged.”
Gallagher has done a lot of work in the nonprofit sector in the last decade, she said, including work for The Beacon, the city’s new day resource shelter for the homeless, the Literacy Network and End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin. She strongly believes that economic empowerment changes everything.
“When families thrive, communities thrive,” she said. “Even if you didn’t get the fancy degrees, even if you didn’t go to the great college, even if your parents didn’t have money to support you … you can still do it.”
She knows that first-hand. She wasn’t a good student and almost didn't graduate from high school, she wrote in an update, and was diagnosed with a learning disability years later. Her parents didn’t have the money to support her as she launched herself as an entrepreneur at the age of 21.
She’s come a long way. In 2016, she received a Wisconsin Trailblazer award from Gov. Scott Walker.
But if she would have had the opportunity to attend an event like this at the beginning of her career, Gallagher said, it would have made a world of difference.
“It would have changed my life. I would have asked for more funding sooner. I’ve never borrowed more than a car loan, even though I’ve been in business all these years,” she said. “I would have had the connections, the resources and the road map to go from A to B. I didn't get that until later in life.”
“I’ve spend more than 25 years not performing at my highest possible potential, that’s the cost.”
A WIDE REACH
Along with inspirational stories from successful women, Tuesday’s event will feature tips for finding funding, live problem-solving sessions and guidance on how to grow as a business. Speakers include Mary Burke, founder of Building Brave, Sabrina Madison, a local entrepreneur who recently launched the Progress Center for Black Women, and Brennan Nardi, communications director at the Madison Community Foundation.
Gallagher wants the event to have a wide reach, bringing in women from many areas of the state, and even those who don’t plan on starting their own business. There’s a lot of focus on women in tech, which is great, Gallagher said, but there are plenty of women starting entrepreneurial ventures in other fields, like retail. The conference is for that woman, too.
“Will she scale that business and grow? What will she learn ... that will help her get to that next level?” she said.
Gallagher intentionally made the 20-person board as inclusive as possible, with a range of ages, races and sectors of the business community. Studies show that diversity leads to better business performance, she said.
“This conference is better because of who we have at the table,” she said.
Men are also encouraged to attend to learn how to work with and for women in business.
‘Gentleman, I have like 10 tickets sold to you at this moment, kindly join us, “ she said. “This is where the future’s going. Do you want to catch the future?”
Registration closed on Thursday, but there may be a small allotment of tickets available at the door, she said. And for those who didn’t catch it this year, Gallagher plans to bring the celebration back on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018.