Entrepreneurs Share Leadership Skills at Women’s Conference

Misa Misono, design director at IDEO, teaches female attendees about how to identify and market their personal brands. Photo by Ying Ni.
Misa Misono, design director at IDEO, teaches female attendees about how to identify and market their personal brands. Photo by Ying Ni.

About 50 Duke women spent a recent Saturday morning learning from five Duke alumnae who are now entrepreneurial leaders.

The annual women’s conference, titled “Lead. Innovate. Grow. Lessons From Entrepreneurial Women,” was hosted by the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative and the Penny Pilgram George Women’s Leadership Initiative. It focused on lessons in resilience, confidence, connectedness and identity.

The conference kicked off with an abbreviated yoga lesson from Kathy Smith ‘01, owner of Yoga Off East. Smith taught the women mindfulness exercises that they could do anywhere, reminding them that everyone is responsible for her own self-care.

In breakout sessions, the participants received lessons in resilience from Becky Holmes ‘15, founder of healthy snack company Ello Raw. After sharing some of her struggles – such as the time she lived out of her car while working to make her business profitable – Holmes asked the women to write down a challenge they were facing. The women then went around the room reading about others’ challenges and sharing advice about how to be resilient.

Holmes advised the women to not give up in the face of adversity, but to instead incorporate it into their story of success.

With Misa Misono, a 2009 MBA graduate who is now design director at IDEO, the women focused on identity and personal branding. They learned how to present a well-rounded picture of themselves with the Brand Star, which has a different characteristic of a brand at each of its five points.

Misono also taught the women about proof points, or taking past experiences or projects to prove that they have relevant experience and can accomplish outcomes even in an unfamiliar field.

Pamela Hawley ‘91, founder and CEO of nonprofit Universal Giving, taught the women about humble confidence. Entrepreneurship isn’t always a straight line, Hawley said.

The most important thing in entrepreneurship, Hawley said, is knowing your own story and returning to that in times of doubt.

Shereen Shermak ‘89, who has been a founder, an angel investor, an adviser and a venture capitalist, talked about the importance of establishing and maintaining connections. An introvert herself, she shared “networking tips for introverts.”

When she’s investing, Shermak said she “bets on the jockey rather than the horse” – meaning she cares more about an entrepreneur’s work ethic than his or her ideas.

Natalie Le ’19, a conference attendee, said she was inspired to come because of her status as a Baldwin Scholar, a program that focuses on women’s empowerment and leadership.

As an economics and computer science major, her dream role is to be CEO of a software company.

“It’s cool hearing the struggles these women went through and how they overcame them to be successful in male-dominated industries,” Le said.