USC Marshall’s premier conference for women entrepreneurs thrives online


December 14, 2020

Although the fourth annual ATHENA Women’s Entrepreneurship Summit was by necessity held virtually this year, that did not hinder an enthusiastic day of networking, pitch competitions and uplifting speakers.

“Even though we had to go virtual this year, we had a strong registration and an impressive attendance,” said Jeymi Choi, associate director of the USC Marshall School of Business Master of Science in Entrepreneurship and Innovation program (MSEI). “There were almost 500 participants throughout the event.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Marshall School of Business and its Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, in partnership with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the MSEI program.

The ATHENA Summit convenes founders, investors and thought leaders around issues facing women entrepreneurs at all stages.

“Mentorships grow out of relationships. The best ones are ones that grow into something you didn’t expect."—Mellody Hobson, Co-CEO of Ariel Investments

Geoff Garrett, Dean of the Marshall School, welcomed viewers and participants.

“Entrepreneurs don’t do things for the paycheck or for status, they do them because they’re committed,” he said. “I often say that business schools are in the business of turning ideas into action, and that’s what entrepreneurs do.

“We’re celebrating women entrepreneurs and hopefully empowering them not just today, but every day,” he said.

Bigger and Bolder

Underpinning this year’s theme of “Bigger and Bolder,” Willow Bay, dean of the Annenberg School, introduced the keynote speaker, Mellody Hobson, president and co-CEO of Ariel Investments and former chairwoman of DreamWorks Animation.

Hobson, who in 2013 married filmmaker George Lucas, sits on the boards of prominent corporations including JP Morgan Chase and Starbucks (Less than a week after the ATHENA summit, Hobson was named chairwoman of the Starbucks board.) and is a noted investor and entrepreneur who is outspoken on the topic of diversity in corporate America.

After a conversation about Hobson’s early life and career trajectory, the question was asked: Are corporations paying lip service to diversity?

“I think the train has left the station, and we’re going to see some real change,” she said. “Customers will hold their suppliers accountable. Because of the viral nature of the society we live in, companies will be called out and held accountable.”

For startups, she advised making diversity part of the company’s DNA. “When you’re building out your teams, ask yourself, is everybody in the room?”

A student asked what advice she would give women entrepreneurs looking for a mentor.

“Mentorships grow out of relationships,” she said. “The best ones are ones that grow into something you didn’t expect. You can’t ask someone to mentor you.”

She pointed out that it’s possible to be mentored by those you’ll never meet. “I was mentored by Nelson Mandela, by Gandhi. You can be mentored by icons who you’ve never met but who can help you come up with a point of view of who you are and what you want to be.”

Founders Forum

A panel titled “New Rules for Founding and Funding” brought together a dynamic group of startup founders, investors and board members for a discussion on challenges facing female founders.

The group included Zuleyka Strasner, founder and president of Zero, providing zero-waste groceries delivered fast; Gail Becker, founder of CAULIPOWER, a gluten-free brand; Cindy Eckert, an entrepreneur who now invests in companies that deliver products specifically for women via her company Pink Ceiling (and sits on the board of CAULIPOWER); and Alyson DeNardo of MaC Venture Capital (investor in Zero). The panelists were interviewed by Maggie McGrath of Forbes.


After a series of virtual break-out room networking events, ATHENA watchers were treated to a second keynote speaker—Marshall alumna Diamanté Harper, known professionally as Saweetie, a rap artist and entertainer who spoke about learning to believe in herself enough to take risks, then learning how to say no.

Harper transferred to USC after two years at San Diego State. She talked about how taking Albert Napoli’s class in entrepreneurship changed her thinking.

She recalled attending a career services event, when her entrepreneurship professor saw her and gently reminded her that she didn’t, in fact, want to do corporate work, and that she had to hold fast to her vision.

“It’s important when you run into people like Professor Napoli who give you that tough love kick,” she said.

Pitch Competition Winners

More than 59 companies with at least one female founder vied to win the ATHENA Female Founders Pitch Competition and cash prizes. The winners were:

  • First place: The Middle – a personal assistant matching service
  • Second place: Key Learning – helping young people in Greek refugee camps gain skill-based learning through their mobile phones
  • Third place: Rebundle – eco-friendly synthetic hair products for hair braiders in the Black community