First Annual ATHENA Women’s Entrepreneurship Summit exceeds expectations

November 08, 2017

If you build it, they will come.

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.

“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. “Jeymi (Choi)—with (professor) Tommy Knapp and the Master of Science in Entrepreneurship and Innovation degree program behind her—really spearheaded the effort it took to make ATHENA come to life.”

Together with an enthusiastic team of players—including Greif Center advisory council member Suzy Ryoo ’09, who largely recruited the A-list panels, table leaders and musical talent—they built out a day showcasing contemporary female entrepreneurship, and hoped they’d get a good crowd.

They got more than they expected.

More than 400 founders, investors, executives, thought leaders and students attended the first annual ATHENA women’s Entrepreneurship Summit, Nov. 2 at Town & Gown. The all-day event was co-sponsored by USC Marshall’s Master of Science in Entrepreneurship and Innovation (MSEI) and the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

“We knew we had a spectacular day lined up,” said Choi, associate director for the MSEI. “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 Room Where it Happened

The buzz in the room was strong from the start. Seats filled quickly. Conversation and card exchanging were so animated it took the announcer several attempts to quiet people down enough to start the program at 9 a.m.

“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" --Jeymi Choi, associate director, MSEI program

When a hush finally took, Helena Yli-Renko took the stage. As professor of clinical entrepreneurship and academic director of the Greif Center, Yli-Renko welcomed the audience to the Summit.

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

She then introduced Amanda Daflos, director of innovation for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office, who welcomed the audience to an important day.

“It’s not really very hard to find incredible women leaders, we just need to make an effort to look for them, recruit them and support them when they come through our doors,” she said, naming several women in charge of key projects around the city.  “Today in L.A., we are proud to say that women are now 53 percent of the commissioners who represent our city. And we revamped the face of leadership in LA in six months.”

The Ladies Who Launch

Four panels over the course of the day brought together women entrepreneurs for frank discussions on everything from deciding to launch a business to being taken seriously by male investors, to the contents of a typical day of a founder.

“By being the head of a startup, you’re actively asking for every fire,” said Moj Mahdara, CEO and founder of “You’re constantly, always recruiting and always raising money…what I do every day is I forgive myself for the mistakes I make, and I keep trying.  I’ve accepted that I live in a state of complete chaos.”

Guests were also treated to a rousing keynote speech by USC alumna and Equinox co-founder Lavinia Errico titled, “Journey to Joy,” as well as to double unplugged sets by singer/songwriter Victory Boyd.


USC Marshall Dean James G. Ellis welcomed the audience after a lunchtime break.

“Gender equality is critical in life,” he said. “We want to make sure that everyone gets an equal chance in being successful. We are all in.”

Willow Bay, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism introduced the winners of the 2017 Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies Entrepreneur of the Year award; Drs. Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields, founders of Rodan + Fields, a direct marketer of high-end skin care lines and Proactiv skin care lines.

“It’s a remarkable achievement to build a $1 billion business, as you did with Proactiv,” she said. “It’s another thing to do it again with Rodan + Fields.”

Lloyd Greif, the founding donor of the Greif Center, presented the award to the two entrepreneurs.

Another Success Story

The day ended on as high a note as it started, with participants moving en masse to a reception at Moreton Fig to continue networking. Many went on to listen to Brené Brown at Bovard Auditorium.

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.”