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2024 Athena Summit Celebrates Unstoppable Women

2024 Athena Summit Celebrates Unstoppable Women

The Athena Women’s Entrepreneurship Summit drew attention to challenges in sports, venture capital, and artificial intelligence.

Lloyd Greif and Amy Liu pose with the Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year award

Lloyd Greif and Amy Liu pose with the Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year award

[Sarah Golonka/USC Photo]

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That was the theme of the 2024 Athena Women’s Entrepreneurship Summit, an annual event dedicated to casting light on female entrepreneurs and connecting them to other founders, investors, and thought leaders. Through panels and networking sessions, traditionally underfunded female visionaries can make crucial connections as they seek financial backing.

“The impetus for the conference eight years ago is still true today, which is that there are not enough women entrepreneurs in the world,” Dean Geoff Garrett said in his opening remarks. “Now, I think everyone in this room knows that is not a pipeline problem — because women are crushing it everywhere, and in particular at USC and in the Marshall School.”

Marshall’s MBA program became the first Top 20 program to achieve gender parity in 2018. In 2021, the school’s undergraduate program achieved parity as well, and has sustained it for the last three years. It’s a major success story, but the work doesn’t stop there. Conferences like Athena afford another opportunity to change the entrepreneurial landscape for the better.

Hosted by USC Marshall’s Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, the event lived up to the “Unstoppable” moniker with an afternoon’s worth of panels featuring women who refused to stop in the face of obstacles.

One of these leaders was Julie Uhrman, the co-founder and president of Angel City Football Club (ACFC) based in Los Angeles. In her talk “The Unstoppable Success of Angel City FC,” Uhrman explained how Angel City differs from other sports franchises. Even when ACFC was still just a glimmer in Uhrman and her co-founders’ eyes, they had a clear vision of a club that did more than win games and sell jerseys. They sought to make an impact in the community.

“We want to build a platform that stands for impact, [giving] back to the community,” Uhrman explained to the crowd. “And then it was about how do we do that authentically and hire people who care as much about that as the soccer.”

That’s not to say profitability or winning has fallen by the wayside. On the contrary, Uhrman wanted ACFC to serve as a shining example of revenue generation. While 90 percent of sports franchises lose money, Uhrman and her team have powered ACFC to a $180 million valuation, the highest in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). According to Uhrman, that cashflow drives their community outreach.

“We’re going to be an organization where mission and capital can coexist, but we do not sacrifice one for the other,” Uhrman said. “Our revenue drives our impact, and our impact drives our revenue.”

For many of the speakers, fostering authentic relationships was just as important as building company infrastructure or a customer base. This was especially true for Marshall alumna Amy Liu, ’04 cofounder of beauty line Tower 28 Beauty. Liu received the Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year award, honoring her success in building Tower 28 into an empire. But Liu herself admitted she didn’t do it alone.

“I think the two major communities I’ve had in my career have been the [Trojan Network], and then also the beauty community,” Liu said. “So much of what has been important in my career has been other people helping me along the way.”

All you ladies need to get in those rooms and make sure your voice is heard because it is very easy for men to say ‘we’re not going to focus on that right now … Sometimes, you have to be the person that every time you get on a boat, you rock it.

— Thuy-An Julien

Chief Business Officer, Harris Family Legacy, LLC

Liu could point to several women in attendance who guided her at Marshall. Once a student, now a successful alumna, Liu has decided to give back to the school she called home. She’s pledged a donation to the Greif Center for each of the next five years.

Another panel, “Beyond Boundaries: Navigating the VC Landscape” focused on the biases women face when searching for investors. One of these panelists, Dawn Lafreeda, owner and operator of 80 Denny’s franchises, spoke about supporting young female entrepreneurs in ways she was never helped as a young businesswoman.

“I’m only investing in female funds because I learned of the disparity of what women get,” Lafreeda said. “I realized that it’s 2024, and we’re still having to fight for our share. And so I want to do my part to carry that forward to make sure I’m investing in women.”

The summit closed out with a discussion on the topic “AI: Video Killed Radio Stars But Generative AI Can’t Kill Creativity.” Prompted in large part by the WGA and SAG strikes of the summer and fall, the panel, composed of female entertainment lawyers and insiders, analyzed how AI may affect artists, its dangerous potential, and concerns over inherent bias in algorithmic programming.

According to Thuy-An Julien, chief business officer of Harris Family Legacy, LLC and Grammy Award-winning music and media executive, the problem starts with who is coding the software.

“All you ladies need to get in those rooms and make sure your voice is heard because it is very easy for men to say ‘we’re not going to focus on that right now,’” Julien said. “Sometimes, you have to be the person that every time you get on a boat, you rock it.”

The well-attended event was planned by Director of the Greif Center Elissa Grossman, Senior Manager of Founder Programs Jeymi Choi, Managing Director of the Greif Center Monica Dean, Assistant Professor of Clinical Entrepreneurship Audra Quinn, and Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship Geraldine Martin-Coppola.