For years there had been talk at USC Marshall and its Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies of putting together a large event for women entrepreneurs. But, not unlike a startup venture, it took the exhaustive efforts of several women to make it happen.

In 2017, Suzy Ryoo ’09, VP of Technology and Innovation at entertainment consultancy Atom Factory and partner at early stage venture capital fund Cross Culture Ventures, started speaking with her network about organizing what she viewed as a necessary and impactful gathering at USC around women’s entrepreneurship.

“There’s an intense dialogue and cultural shift happening around equality in the workplace across Silicon Valley, Hollywood and the world,” said Ryoo, who is also a member of the Greif Center Advisory Council. “The time is now to discuss these issues openly and with a commitment toward change.”

The response was enthusiastic, and the network sprang into action. Back at USC, Jeymi Choi, who oversees programming for the Marshall school’s Master of Entrepreneurship and Innovation program, was busy doing the legwork to convene such an event.

“Sometimes it takes that one person to get the ball rolling and say, ‘We’re doing this!’” said David Belasco, executive director of the Greif Center.

The result surpassed everyone’s expectations. The First ATHENA Women’s Entrepreneurship Summit, held on Nov. 2, 2017 at the USC campus, drew more than 400 founders, investors, executives, thought-leaders and students.

“We knew we had a spectacular day lined up,” said Choi. “But what made it special were the people who came together to find a community of support. We know that meaningful connections were made and that this is just the beginning of greater things to come.”

THE CONNECTIONS

USC Marshall was building a reputation for nurturing women business leaders and entrepreneurs long before the ATHENA Summit. With scholarships, programming, speaker series and applied mentoring, the school has made gender equity a priority.

“We are very proud of what’s happening with our initiatives for women here at Marshall,” said Dean James G. Ellis at the opening of the second annual International Women’s Day speaker’s panel in March, which was sponsored by the full-time MBA program.

Marshall’s MBA programs (including its fulltime, part-time, executive and online MBAs), in addition to its many specialized master’s degree programs, aggressively court the best female candidates through multiple channels. For example, the school maintains strong connections with the Forte Foundation, which supports women seeking business education.

USC sMarshall women made a strong showing in the L

Business Journal’s recent “20 in their 20s” feature story: Nine of the entrepreneurs profiled were from USC—and five of them were women.

JUST DO IT

Women in Marshall’s many entrepreneurship classes are encouraged—expected—to get their voices heard.

“No idea was too big or too outlandish in Albert Napoli’s Management of New Enterprises class,” said Sami Fishbein ’17. “He always challenged my thinking.”

The final project in this class was to find a product or service that could realistically be brought to market. Fishbein’s pitch—for a yoga mat that was also a non-slip sweat towel— ended up winning the pitch competition.

“Napoli came to me afterwards and said ‘You should seriously pursue this.” She took his advice and, after locking up a family investment, launched her company, OMie Yoga, which manufactures and retails the OMie yoga mat and towel, as well as other yoga products.“The connections I made at Marshall were and continue to be my best business support system.”

THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED

When Helena Yli-Renko took the stage at the ATHENA Summit, she made a wry observation. As the academic director of the Greif Center, a professor of clinical entrepreneurship and herself an entrepreneur, she noted that “…Athena was the Greek goddess of courage, wisdom, law and justice, strength, the arts, and skill. A fierce and ruthless warrior, but also praised for her compassion and generosity.

“Clearly only a woman entrepreneur could be all these things.”

ANOTHER SUCCESS STORY

The ATHENA Summit ended on as high a note as it started, with participants moving en masse to a reception at a nearby campus restaurant to continue networking. Many went on to listen to Brené Brown, who was speaking at Bovard Auditorium that night.

The programming, representation and diversity, and presentation set a standard that will be tough to match, said Belasco. “The reality exceeded the vision,” he said.

At the end of the day, nobody was happier than Choi, who, much like an entrepreneur launching a product, was exhausted, but elated.

“We expect that the ATHENA community will continue to grow and we hope that we are in the forefront of building and fostering relationships to help women entrepreneurs,” said Choi. “Going forth, we hope to gather more support and partnerships that help level the playing field for women entrepreneurs.”

For more information, visit marshall.usc.edu

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