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Strategies for success at Working Women’s Business Symposium

Anne-Allen_White-Bckgrnd_WEBAs a veteran marketing teacher and public speaker, Ann Swanson, a consultant for the Idaho Small Business Development Center, has long observed there’s just something different about teaching to a women-only group.

Educators who promote all-women schools have been saying this for years: Women behave differently when there aren’t any men in the classroom. Swanson said she sees it as a greater freedom of expression.

As an example, she used a presentation she often gives on the use of LinkedIn. One of her exercises is to have participants write down the things they’re good at, personally and in the workplace.

“Women struggle with that,” said Swanson. “So we talk about that struggle of talking about ourselves professionally. We’re in this double bind of, ‘I need to promote myself, but if I promote myself people write me off as power-hungry.’ We’re kind of caught in that.”

Swanson is one of the speakers who will be featured Feb. 18 at Idaho Business Review’s Working Women’s Business Symposium, a program running in conjunction with IBR’s Women of the Year celebration that evening, in partnership with the Small Business Development Center and sponsored by Hawley Troxell.

The symposium is a new element to the Women of the Year, one of IBR’s most popular annual awards events. At the daylong event, a gathering of accomplished professional women will present on topics such as managing growth, managing change and media marketing.

The opening speaker is Jessica Rolph, a founding partner and chief operating officer of the Happy Family organic baby food company, which was started in 2006 and had gross sales of $60 million by the time it was sold to Danone last year. At lunchtime, construction company owner Linda Alvarado, who is also the co-owner of the Colorado Rockies, will give the keynote address: “Believe in Your Ability to Succeed.” Alvarado has broken two barriers: She is the first female owner of a national sports franchise and also the first Hispanic owner.

Women’s business and leaderships issues are tricky to talk about, but the timing is right. The conversation has been going on for decades, but Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead has brought a lot of difficult issues into sharp focus. Among other things, Sandberg, whose book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 45 weeks, has broken a few barriers of her own by being unafraid to tell her readers that they need to change some traditionally female mannerisms if they want to command more authority in public. When the Sandbergs of the world can say these things, it opens the door for other lesser beings to venture that yes, there are strong differences in the way men and women relate personally and professionally. Whatever you think of that claim, a look at the gender makeup of corporate boards and other loci of power shows that the male way of relating is hitting the mark, at least in the working world.

Helping women succeed in business is the purpose behind the daylong Working Women’s Business Symposium. Speakers include Meg Carlson, president and CEO of Melt Organic, who will give a talk called “Stepping into the Corner Office.” Yvonne Anderson-Thomas, owner of Brown Shuga Soul Food, will present on “Doing Well by Doing Good.”

Connie Miller, president and CEO of Icon Credit Union, will talk about stepping into the credit union’s top job in 2008, a dire year for banking. Under Miller, membership has grown from 14,000 to more than 16,000 since that year, and loans have grown from $100 million to $140 million.  Miller said one of the most important things she tells women is to stick through tough times. Another is to find peers with whom you can share ideas.

“Build a strong peer support group, and look to the people who you truly respect, and don’t be afraid to network with them,” Miller said. “Women need to bounce ideas off of people. And that’s really critical when you’re at the top.”

Swanson, who also serves as the director of communications and marketing at Idaho State University, said she enjoys women-only audiences because they seem freer to ask questions, even at the risk of revealing weakness.

The silver bullet idea is one of them. Too often, Swanson said, business owners and managers come to her class expecting to learn about the silver bullet that will solve all of their marketing problems. They’re not expecting to hear the difficult news that marketing is complex and involves a great deal of experimentation.

“I think especially women feel like when they are given the problem to solve, there is some magical answer they’re supposed to figure out or know,” Swanson said. “Women want a silver bullet because they want to get on to something else, and they’re more likely to put pressure on themselves to find it.

“I redirect them away from, ‘What is the perfect answer?’ to ‘What are some possible experiments we can run?’”

Swanson said her students’ relief is palpable.

“There’s a sense of, ‘Oh, I don’t have to do this perfectly. And I’m not the only one who feels like this.’”

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.