BSmart Guide

Dee Poku, Co-Founder and CEO of the WIE Network, is empowering future women leaders with inspiring stories and support through her global symposium events and online community aimed at uplifting and empowering the next generation of female leaders.  The WIE Network has attracted an unparalleled panel of inspiring women speakers - from Donna Karan to Bobbi Brown, Arianna Huffington, Nancy Pelosi and Queen Rania.  As a former Hollywood studio executive, Dee shares why she created the WIE Network and her vision for all future empowered women leaders. 

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We all learn from the women we aspire to be, from their stories and from their journey.

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Women, Inspiration + Enterprise

What inspired you to create the WIE Network?

There were a number of reasons why I was inspired to start the WIE Network + Symposium.  My background is in the movie industry, and I’ve worked for a number of corporations, so I was navigating corporate culture, which wasn’t easy.  I had a very exciting job, but a very, very demanding job.  As a woman, I felt I came up against so many situations where I wished I had someone to talk to, someone to give me advice and feedback I needed to help me navigate life.  I had my friends and my peers, but I didn’t really have someone who’d gone before me, who could share their story with me.  That’s one of the major reasons why I thought having something like WIE was important.  We all learn from those who have gone before us.  We all learn from the women we aspire to be, from their stories and from their journey.  WIE is really a way to provide that for people like me.

What does being an empowered woman mean to you?

Being empowered means having confidence.  It’s having the resources you need to succeed.  It’s being happy in yourself, and having role models around you who can help and support you in your journey.  To be truly empowered, to get to where you want to be in life, you need to have role models and support.  Having those resources is really key to your success.  I’m looking to reach all women who are aspiring to be or do something, women who are ambitious, women who have a goal in life and want guidance.  That ranges from millennial women to women in their late thirties and early forties.  For all of us on this journey, at whatever point we are in our careers, we’re looking for that support to help us feel empowered.

Watch Dee Share why she created the WIE Network

To get to where you want to be in life, you need to have role models and support.

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How do you select the women you feature on your panel?

I’m looking for women who are aspirational.  I’m looking for women who represent what we’re all looking for or looking to be.  I’m always looking for diversity because we want to be able to see ourselves in the woman who’s accomplished.  It’s very important to have a range of races and cultures, as well as having women from all sectors.  The women who come to our conference come from all industries, from tech to fashion to politics.  I’m really looking for diversity in every sense of that word.  There’s also that sort of special something that the WIE woman has that's exciting for the audience, whether that’s someone like Arianna Huffington or Nancy Pelosi or Donna Karan.  There’s something in those three women, in their stories for example, that inspire the women that come to WIE symposiums.

What are the major changes you see in women's empowerment in:

Technology

Technology is an interesting outlet because on the one hand, it’s a relatively open field in that you’re seeing a lot of women who are starting companies.  It’s not as entrenched in an old set of values like banking, for example.  However, there aren’t as many women who are achieving leadership positions in technology.  One of the main reasons behind this issue is that women in technology tend to be more on the creative side of things, and so there’s a movement at this time to push women to pursue engineering degrees or to learn to code.  That is certainly our handicap in that industry.  We’re approaching it from a creative standpoint and not from the development specialization.  I focus on portraying role models in technology because I do think it’s a really wide-open opportunity for women.  For millennial women, it’s an industry to keep in mind when you’re pursing your education.

Fashion & Entertainment

There are a lot of successful women in both fashion and entertainment.  In entertainment there are some great women in leadership.  On the production side (people behind the camera, writers, directors) that’s where we’re lacking women.  I think that goes back to technology and getting a broader base of education.

Even though there are so many women in fashion, I still see a predominance of men running fashion houses and companies - even though it’s an industry that’s geared towards women and women are the primary consumers of the product.  I believe we can use our purchasing power to ensure we have a voice in that industry and are decision-makers.

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I believe we can use our purchasing power to ensure we have a voice in fashion and are decision-makers.

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When we’ve had models speak at WIE, it tends to be about a specific topic.  Christy Turlington spoke about maternal mortality with respect to Every Mother Counts, an organization that focuses on helping women in childbirth and trying to reduce the number of women who die in childbirth.  We had Amber Valetta speak on the fashion panel about launching an ethically focused e-commerce site, which speaks to women who want to know where their clothing comes from.  We certainly have a lot of women from the fashion industry who speak at WIE.  Our women are interested in those industries, but we’re not talking about beauty, rather weightier issues, going ‘behind-the-beauty’ and the facade into the deeper areas that these women have chosen to focus on.

Business & Banking

Banking is actually an industry I nearly went into.  I studied math at university and the logical next step was to work in finance.  It wasn’t for me.  I went through the interview process with a couple of well-known banks, and I knew from the outset that it wasn’t the culture I was comfortable with.  I commend and applaud my female comrades who have managed to achieve in that industry because I know it’s not easy.  It’s an old boys network that isn’t as open to women.  It’s a culture that is macho and alienating to women and can be a tough industry for women to succeed in.  We see very small numbers of women running financial institutions.  I’ve certainly found it very hard to find speakers from the financial sector for my conference - and I’m always searching.  I think the work that needs to be done in banking is changing the culture – the culture of what you have to be and what you have to represent to be successful in that industry.

Non-profit Organizations

I love what’s happening in the non-profit industry.  Women are excelling because of our naturally empathetic nature and there are a lot of women leading some wonderful organizations in the non-profit sector.  Cecile Richards at Planned Parenthood is a great example of a woman I really admire whose come up against a lot of pushback and criticism around the area of women’s contraception.  Then there’s Nancy Lublin who runs an organization called Do Something and was also the founder of Dress for Success.  She’s very smart at marketing, which I think is something that a lot of non-profit organizations lack, that ability to tell difficult stories in a way that really resonates with the general public.  Zainab Sabli from Women for Women International is amazing.  She works with women from war-torn countries like the Congo.  So I think we’re doing really good work there.

Politics

We had a record year after the last election with a record number of women in the Senate, which is fantastic.  There are some women I hugely admire, like Kirsten Gillibrand who’s very focused on empowering women and putting forward legislation that supports workingwomen with families.  Nancy Pelosi is the first leader of the House and an incredible role model.  I know there’s a dearth of women in politics, and the reasons why are very obvious.  Women are not treated very respectfully when they put themselves in the spotlight.  The focus is typically on their appearance and less on their policy ideas.  Hillary Clinton had a Time cover recently featuring a high-heeled shoe stepping on an emasculated man and I think that’s the sort of thing that really puts women off from pursuing public office.  I think we need to see more women in politics because certainly in the area of contraception, we need to be in the room making the decisions for ourselves.  Having representation is crucial.

What have you personally learned from listening to all of these inspiring women?

I almost want to go back to my first job and start all over again applying all of the lessons I’ve learned because I think it would be a very different experience.  I think one of the most important things I’ve learned is actually something I’m writing a book about and it’s about working smart.  I think that’s the primary lesson I’ve learned.  Women work very hard.  We’re conscientious.  That’s a wonderful trait, but sometimes you can get caught up in the minutiae of doing the work without seeing the bigger picture - where you’re going and what the steps are.  I think working smart is probably the number one lesson we all need to learn, to think carefully about our ambitions and specific steps or skills needed to get us there.

Watch Dee discuss the impact of women leaders

I’m always looking for diversity because we need to see ourselves in the woman who’s accomplished.

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About Dee Poku

What have been your biggest lessons learned creating a women's empowerment platform?

The number one thing I’ve had to deal with is people saying ‘no,’ or that something isn’t possible.  I hear it all the time.  Dealing with naysayers is just something you have to learn to do.  It’s not about not listening to criticism or not being open to input (which is incredibly important) but you have to have the courage to follow your convictions.  You have to be motivated enough, ambitious enough, driven enough to pursue your goals despite everything you may hear around you.  That’s really something I’ve had to learn to do, so when I first launched a business I took ‘no’ very personally.  ‘No’ made me personally upset, and I would have to deal with that rejection and criticism.  Now it rolls off my back.  It doesn’t bother me because either you hear ‘no’ and something better comes along or it was something I needed to hear in order to restructure.  It’s not something I allow to impede my progress.

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Working smart is the number one lesson we need to learn, to think carefully about our ambitions and specific steps or skills needed to get us there.

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I had a baby recently, and that’s been a whole new education for me because I want to be a great mother and a great businesswoman and a great wife.  It’s very hard because there are only so many hours in the day, which makes it difficult to do all those things well.  You have to go easy on yourself.  You can’t be perfect at everything.  At any one point you’ll be a great mother and business won’t be going so well, or you’ll be working very hard and in the zone and perhaps the wife part suffers a little bit.  Let it be.  Do your best.  As long as the intentions are there, you’ll get there.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment personally or professionally?

There were some movies in my corporate career that I helped spearhead the marketing for, and one of those is An Inconvenient Truth, which is a documentary about climate change from Al Gore.  It was and continues to be a documentary I'm really proud to be part of and which changed the conversation around global warming.  My child is a crowning achievement.  Launching WIE was incredibly wonderful, and in creating that conference, I had to have a lot of nerve.  When we had our first event and we had the likes of Arianna Huffington and Donna Karan, Bobbi Brown and Queen Rania, it was incredible.  Everyone in that room was amazing, and I think it was a testament to our self-belief and our hard work that we were able to achieve that.  I’m proud of how the conference has grown and the network that has been created around it.  I’m proud to have gone from working in a corporate job to becoming an entrepreneur because it’s a very scary step to leave a regular salary and healthcare and all those lovely perks (that I really still miss!) and to strike out on your own and go out into the unknown.

Watch Dee share how you can bSmart too

I’m proud of how the conference has grown and the network that has been created around it.

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What is your dream for the WIE Network and its affiliated programs over the next 5 years? 

There are so many things I want to achieve with this network.  One is that I want it to be a truly global organization, so to that end, we’ve launched in London and Africa.  Asia is the next area to conquer, as is Latin America.  I think that women all over the world have the same goals and face a lot of the same obstacles.  It’s about uniting us around those conversations and creating this global sharing network that’s really important.  I want to create a leadership institute that’s devoted to supporting women in their careers, that’s taking all of those lessons learned in the conference and putting them into a facility that’s available all year round, that everyone can use in their day to day lives.  We’re also creating this online platform that’s a place to view our content and to connect with other women in the same industries.  The goal is to definitely grow in those areas, become a global organization online and offline.

What do you want all bSmart members to know about your story that would help them bSmart too? 

What I want people to know about my story is that nothing comes easy that’s really worth having.  You need to hold on to that conviction and that self-belief and allow that to power you through.  The number one contributing factor to my successful achievements has been my network.  It makes sense, then, that I would create this women’s network because everything I have I attribute to that - to the colleagues and to the friendships.  I have one friend in particular that I turn to with concerns and questions, so I would suggest that you really know how to leverage your network, to work with the friends around you.   Everything that you need is right there in front of you.  You just have to know where to look for it.

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What I want people to know about my story is that nothing comes easy that’s really worth having.

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