USC Marshall held its third annual ATHENA Conference Nov. 7th at Town & Gown on the University Park Campus. And although the line-up of keynote speakers and panels change from year to year, the primary force behind the conference stays the same:
The room was at capacity with women entrepreneurs, and networking was brisk.
Case in point: a Marshall alumna Chelsea LaFerla '18, sat next to a woman who complimented her dress. “Thank you," she said. "I make these.” LaFerla is the founder and owner of Petitas Los Angeles, a clothing brand made by and for petite women. The woman handed over her card. “Let’s talk,” she said.
Scenes like this played out hundreds of times over the course of the day-long event, which featured panels, keynote speakers, pitch competition awards and comments from USC President Dr. Carol Folt.
“ATHENA convenes founders, investors, entrepreneurs, and students for conversations and action around issues facing entrepreneurs at all stages,” said David Belasco, executive director of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.
“Nobody told us we couldn’t do it, so we did it."—Jane Wurwand, Founder of Dermalogica
The Female Quotient, a female-owned business committed to advancing equality in the workplace and the world through collaboration, bringing visibility to women, activating solutions for change, and creating metrics for accountability, joined the event this year.
Four panels over the course of the day featured entrepreneurs and thought leaders who touched on all manner of issues facing founders, especially those who are women or people of color.
Navigating early-stage funding ("Building Founder Success: From Seed to Growth.); Investment ("Taking Charge: Investors Leveling the Field."); "Empowering Artists as Entrepreneurs," and "Messaging your Mission: When What we Value is Hard to Sell."
The program also featured a fireside between Gillian Zucker of the Los Angeles Clippers, interviewed by Shelley Smith of ESPN.
Singer and songwriter Jensen McRae, a 2019 Thornton graduate, serenaded attendees during lunch.
Some Skin in the Game
The day’s keynote speaker was Jane Wurwand, founder of Dermalogica, interviewed by Willow Bay, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism.
Wurwand who came to California from England with her then boyfriend (now husband) in 1983, saw a niche for skin-care products for salons. Hers is a quintessential bootstrapped, rags to riches story.
When her mother became a widow at age 38, she told her four young daughters that they had to “learn how to do something,” in order to make a living for themselves. Wurwand dutifully complied and attended vocational school to become a trained skin-care esthetician.
“I can wax a bikini line in 7 minutes,” she said, to laughs.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles in the early ‘80s, she quickly realized there were no high-end skin care lines being made in the country. She set out to fill that niche. She also set up training for skin-care professionals.
“Nobody told us we couldn’t do it, so we did it,” she said. “People asked what are exit strategy was and we didn’t know what they were talking about. We wanted to build the largest privately held skin care company in the world.”
She succeeded. And in 2015 Dermalogica was acquired by Consumer Package Goods giant Unilever. Since then Wurwand has focused on several initiatives that support and nurture local businesses, and in particular, women-led businesses. She recently launched Found/LA to connect local entrepreneurs with funding and coaching in their neighborhoods and cities.
“We started FoundLA.org and put it back into the city that brought us to the map, and that’s LA,” said Wurwand. She hopes to scale the concept to other cities around the country and beyond.
Behind the Event
ATHENA is co-sponsored by Marshall’s Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and the MS in Entrepreneurship and Innovation degree program, as well as by the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism.
The conference benefits from the vision and focus of a small group of women who oversee its production. Marshall alumna Suzy Ryoo, Co-founder, president and Chief Strategy Officer at Q & A; Marshall lecturer Robyn Ward, founder of Founder Forward, a leadership accelerator for female founders, and Jeymi Choi, the associate director of Marshall’s MS in Social Entrepreneurship.
“She runs the MSEI program, worked countless hours on ATHENA, and is also completing an Ed.D.,” said Elissa Grossman, director of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and Orfalea Director’s Chair in Entrepreneurship, associate professor of clinical entrepreneurship. “You just have to stop and admit she’s amazing.”