‘Speed-dating’ inspires women entrepreneurs to network

Women entrepreneurs take part in three-minute, one-on-one, business speed dating meetings during the fourth Women Entrepreneurs Festival in New York, January 15, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand)

NEW YORK: They are bloggers, engineers and chefs – American women entrepreneurs who dream of emulating the success of Facebook No. 2 Sheryl Sandberg or General Motors CEO Mary Barra.

And to smash through that glass ceiling, they have found a new weapon: speed-dating style networking events. No men allowed.

To shouts of “one, two, three – change!” and “one, two, three – switch!” ladies mingle at the first event organized at the annual women entrepreneurs festival run by the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University.

Around 280 women of all ages and professions are given three minutes to get to know each other, swap business information and exchange cards before moving onto the next person.

It is the business equivalent of the matchmakers’ speed-dating phenomenon that took off about a decade ago as a chance for the loveless to quickly meet multiple people in the hope of snaring a date.

The room gets increasingly riotous as the session wears on, bathed in the beautiful light of a New York winter afternoon.

Pairs of women group and regroup like members of a ballet company, exchanging business cards as they go.

Some nod and smile, others stifle a yawn, break into laughter or screw up their eyes in concentration before the emcee calls on them to move onto their immediate neighbor.

“We make short ... fun, playful videos to boost people’s popularity online,” New York-based multimedia artist O Zhang says.

“Give me your card.”

Farther away, a woman named Milena, a bit older with a friendly manner, heads toward a young woman who has caught her eye.

“Are you looking for somebody to talk to?” she says, introducing herself as a former technology director about to embark on new projects with Jacqueline Courtney, the founder of website Nearly Newlywed, which allows brides to buy and sell back wedding dresses.

The rules are simple, says Nancy Hechinger, an ITP faculty member and co-founder of the event: three minutes to introduce yourself, your business and your passion in “hopefully semi-controlled chaos.”

Rosemarie Gambetta – a real estate agent who wants to turn her blog Cheap Eats Inc. about dining out on a budget into an online restaurant guide, mobile app and business – dreams of rising to the top.

Gambetta told AFP the event was a great exercise without the pressure of meeting a man.

“Women are not used to selling themselves ... you don’t want to come off as being too bitchy, you don’t want to come off as being too aggressive,” she said.

For Denise Courter, who left Wall Street to found FiDi Families, a children’s activities website in Manhattan, it was an opportunity to meet “inspirational women.”

“So many times, I went to conferences that were men-centric, and this is focusing on women and that is very exciting because we are all able to help each other up the ladder,” she said.

Despite high-profile success stories such as Barra at General Motors, only 15 percent of U.S. companies and only 4.5 percent of Fortune 1000 companies are run by women.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, who stirred up a furor in 2012 with an essay in The Atlantic magazine asking if it was truly possible for working mothers “to have it all,” opened the 2014 forum.

“It’s exactly where we need to be – encouraging women to start things, to make things on their own,” she told AFP.

Slaughter gave up a high-flying job at the State Department in order to take a position at Princeton University that would in turn enable her to spend more time caring for her two sons.

“Guys who are entrepreneurs know other entrepreneurs. And I know those networks are very important ... because we’re still a substantial minority,” she said.

Sashka Rothchild, a former chef and founder of Standbuy, a cancer fundraising tool for families, has just had a child.

“I was way out of practice so this is a good way to get back into the saddle,” she said.

Katie Boyko, founder of the website Dating by Three Degrees, also went home satisfied.

“I did a little bit of A/B testing, what’s the most concise way to get the message across ... everybody in the room was a potential new client,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 22, 2014, on page 13.




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