“Like many young women, I started out my career starry-eyed and filled with confidence in my ability to succeed,” says Dee Poku, founder of WIE (Women: Inspiration & Enterprise) Symposium, a conference and network aimed at advancing women's careers and combatting workplace sexism. As Poku got older, she says, “I saw the imbalance but didn't feel constrained by it.”
Then, something changed. As Poku ascended the Hollywood ladder, eventually becoming an entertainment marketing executive, she began to wake up to the subtle misogyny she had been experiencing—and how it was stifling her career. After speaking with other women who, to her surprise, felt the same way, Poku became an entrepreneur and activist, founding WIE and the Other Festival, an offshoot. Since it launched in 2010, WIE has hosted panelists from Katie Couric to Arianna Huffington and from Tyra Banks to Christy Turlington.
Here, Poku opens up about what drove her to become an activist and what keeps her fighting every day.
Live The Process: Have you always been interested in inciting change? Were you raised with a strong sense of women’s issues, solidarity, and feminism?
Dee Poku: My mother raised to me believe in the power of my brain, and I didn't necessarily see any impediments to my success. That changed when I reached my 30’s and started to hit those walls and saw women around me experiencing the same things. But my activism began quietly. Over time, I gained the confidence to speak out more openly on these issues and began looking for ways to take more direct action.
LTP: How and when did you wind up making the transition from entertainment into activism and social entrepreneurship?
DP: As mentioned earlier, I hit a wall in my career, but I also couldn't see a long-term future in entertainment, so I transitioned into entrepreneurship. After years of giving one’s time and talents to someone else, you hit a point where you want ownership and autonomy. You want to apply your talent and experience to something you've created and have ownership over. And I wanted to make a difference. So after a couple of wrong turns, I found my true calling in my women’s network, WIE. I very much consider myself an activist. We should all be activists when it comes to issues we care about, where we see injustice. Activism can take many forms. Some people march, some write letters, some use education, other use journalism or social media to spread awareness. We can all play our part.
LTP: When did you found WIE and The Other Festival, respectively, and what were your goals for them?
DP: WIE was founded in 2010 as a one-off conference. So many of the conferences around that time were very expensive as well as heavily male dominated. The WIE Symposium was intended as an antidote to that, a more accessible, inclusive, cost-effective forum that was geared toward advancing women in the workplace. After that first event, it became clear that there was a real there there. Professional women were looking for the connections and tools to help them navigate the workplace.
The Other Festival was created just last year, in response to the surge in entrepreneurship and the incredible innovation I was seeing among women, especially young women. I love harnessing that and putting those women together in one room to make magic happen. The festival is intended as a platform to showcase female founders and provide them with the tools to build and monetize their businesses. To be honest, every single time I hear about a lucrative business connection that’s been formed as a result of one of my forums (and there’ve been quite a few), it’s an amazing feeling.
LTP: Why is this issue so important right now?
DP: This issue has always been important, but it was raised higher in the public consciousness during the recent election. All the misogyny that Hillary encountered on that election campaign reminded women of every micro-aggression they'd been subjected to on their own career path, magnified to the Nth degree on the world stage. It's ridiculous to me that women are still fighting for very basic rights such as equal pay and reproductive health.
LTP: Do you have any wellness rituals or practices that keep you feeling balanced and healthy throughout it all?
DP: Walking is my therapy. I love living in cities where I can walk everywhere. It's when my mind naturally sorts through all the problems I have to solve and when I come up with my best ideas. I also swear by hot water and lemon in the morning as a cure all.
LTP: What does happiness look like to you?
DP: When I was younger, happiness was very material: corner office, big salary, fancy title, etc. Now, my happiness is rooted in family and friends, the efficacy of my work, and, right now in particular, political stability and justice for all. When my son is happy, I'm happy. And that means I need to see a positive future for him in a world that values his mind and his talents regardless of the color of his skin.
LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how can we all, especially as women, do that more each day?
DP: Living the process is about living your truth and being authentic to yourself. If you're not doing things you believe in, it creates stress and affects the way you interact with the world. So ask yourself on a regular basis: Is what I'm doing making me feel fulfilled?
The Other Festival, a gathering for female founders, makers, and creators, takes place October 14-15 at CityPoint in NYC. Tickets and information are available at www.theotherfestival.co