A woman of action and making the most out of her network(s), Dee Poku Spalding is passionate about shifting the dynamic for women in the workplace. She is the Founder of a New York based women's conference called The Other Festival, which aims to showcase women who are redefining business practices, as well as the Co-Founder of the Women Inspiration & Enterprise (WIE) network, an influential women's leadership network.
At the core of being a leader, advocate, board member, writer and an overall mover and shaker, Dee Poku champions women and wants to provide women the tools they need to succeed.
In our conversation, Dee gives us insight on landing speakers like Naomi Campbell for her festival, the key to building women empowerment, and how to use your resources wisely.
I’m aware of that you got inspired to create the Other Festival while attending another music festival back in 2015. I’d like to hear more about this story. What inspired you to create this Other event?
I had gone to a few music festivals and I remember looking around me and noticing how high the number of women in the audience was versus what I was seeing on stage. Just struck me as another example of the imbalance that exists.
I’ve been hosting conferences for a while and I was at a point where I was looking for a new format that’s more interactive, more influential, just more engaging for my audience. So I just decided to combine various ideas, including the music component, into one. Something that felt a little bit fresher and could really support female makers and creators who were generally more creatively driven with something that was less static.
Building a brand, especially a festival, is a lot of work and masterplanning. What did those first steps look like for you when you were creating The Other Fest?
I really draw from my network. I draw from the people around me. Usually the first thing I do is put together some sort of committee or advisory group made up of people I’m either trying to target or who have experience in that area. I will share my ideas, listen to their feedback, and use that to flesh out the event. I make sure I have a date and a venue, and then the concept takes shape as you start to put all the building blocks into place. But I usually start with an advisory group to help me!
What differentiates this festival from other conventions and conferences for women creators and makers?
The key difference is the fact that there is a lot more to see, touch, feel, do. I would say conventional conferences have you sitting in a room, being talked at. With my festival, you’re moving around the space meeting founders. We have a big marketplace where women are showing off their work. Attendees are meeting and connecting with them, supporting them by buying from them. We have art and music. Just connecting with the work in a more visceral way as opposed to listening people talk back at you. You get to experience it and feel it as well. I think that that’s really important. While people are moving around they’re connect with one another in more organic ways.
I think a key reason why women come to these things is to really meet. It’s really about giving them those opportunities to connect with one another, as well as the women they’re there to hear from. That’s key. The name is really about a refute to all those conferences and festivals that don’t feature women in high profiles, roles or have that imbalance.
You’ve had women like Naomi Campbell and Rosario Dawson in your line-up for The Other Festival. What is the secret ingredient for gaining support and involvement from people of such high profiles?
There’s a number of factors. Obviously relationships play a part. That’s definitely why I always have a go-to network of people that I work with. Someone always knows someone who knows someone who can get me to that person and I have a pretty good network myself. Then I think it’s also being really clear about your ask and why you’re going to a specific person. I really think about who I am approaching, why and why it might be interesting to them in particular. So it’s just very much about the approach and then it’s personalized.
It sounds like you’re really good at using your resources, and you created a really good network for yourself. Did this kind of come from the Women Inspiration Enterprise (WIE) that you founded?
Could you tell me a little more about that journey and how that began?
So I spent most of my career in the corporate sector working for quite large companies. Working for those companies came with their challenges, whether it was getting promoted, asking for pay raises, doing self-promotion and branding. You know... all the pretty typical things that women experience in corporate culture. So I really wanted to create something that I wish I had when I had those jobs. I never felt like I had mentors or people to go by for some support. That’s really where that journey began. If I was doing that all over again, what would I wish for and what are the networks and opportunities I would’ve wanted to have?
Where does this passion of women empowerment root from for you?
Someone else asked me this recently and it was really hard to articulate specifically why this is so important to me. Obviously, it’s drawn from my own experiences and it’s just rooted in who I am. I’m a do-er! So if I see something I want to fix or that bothers me, I do something about it. I don’t just talk about things. It was about finding my voice and finding the right way to bring various thoughts and ideas to fruition. I’ve traveled around the world and I’ve seen injustice. I’ve always (in the back of my mind) been searching for a way to make my voice heard and to contribute something. I just never knew what that was. Then I created my very first event, the very first conference for WIE, which originally was done as a one off. It was never meant to be a long-term thing. I just remember that feeling of creating that first event, and what it meant to me and how meaningful it was. I knew I found that “it” I had been searching for and continued it.
What would you personally say is the key to building women empowerment?
There are so many things that need to change to really support women in the workplace. I see a lot of the responsibility is put on the shoulders of women and I don’t love that. The women that I see around me are pretty ambitious, motivated, smart and strong! So they already have everything they need. It’s really a system that doesn’t support them. I would like to see a stronger emphasis on the value of diversity, and not just talking about initiative but tangible action that supports female founders and executives! Whether that’s ensuring that there is clarity in your leadership, whether that is ensuring that you are investing in as many female founders as you are male founders. I want to see tangible action from those in positions of power and those hierarchies that are male dominated.
What advice would you give to women who are looking to build their network and remain connected to those people to really make the most out of those resources?
I think women are very good at social networking but what I think we don’t do enough of is asking and leveraging those networks. I think there are a number of reasons why we feel uncomfortable asking for more from a business standpoint. It’s sort of pointless to build this incredible network and then not make them work for you. We have to take away the discomfort we feel around that and understand that this is how business works. Those who don’t ask, don’t get. So it’s really a combination of ensuring you are always using every opportunity you can, whether it’s within the workplace or going to events like the Other Festival or WIE. Keep building a great network of people around you, both within the industry and outside of that. Then make it work in your favor!
Everything I have in my life has come about from the networks I have and just asking for things. People say no to me all the time. Everyday! And that’s cool. They can’t always give you what you want but the majority of the time they can. You don’t know until you make the ask. That’s the number one way you can make tangible, substantial differences in your career.
I agree. That’s something that I’m still personally working on is not being afraid to ask. I’ve been reflecting on this because I realized that a lot of what I’ve been able to create has come from me letting people know what I want and what my goals are.
Yeah and I think that often we take these things personally. It’s really important to separate business from personal. Understand that if you ask for something and you get a no or even no response, it’s not personal. There are various reasons someone might not be able to give you that thing. Maybe it’s not the right place or time in their life for that to happen or they’re too busy and have other priorities that they need to focus on at that time. Maybe they didn’t get your message or they don’t have the resources! There are so many other different reasons that aren’t directly about you, it’s about them. It’s important to understand that for yourself so when you get that next no, you know that it’s not you and that leaves you to ask again. Whether it’s asking that person or somebody else. It can take 50 no’s to get to the right yes. If you speak to very successful people, female founders who make tons of money, they will tell you about all the no’s they got in order to get to where they are and that it gets easier. As you progress, as you rise through the ranks, you have to get over those initial hurdles first and it gets easier.
If you feel comfortable sharing, what is a big obstacle that you encounter?
I mean, you know, it’s time. I take on very ambitious projects, and I just get pulled in a number of different directions. It could be hard to manage people, manage money, manage resources. I have a family and I have a child. It’s like trying to be in a million places at once. I always find that incredibly hard.
How do you deal with that and find that balance?
I try to be better at time management and I try to be better at not taking on too much. I say yes to too much and then I have to find the time to know what I need to prioritize. I try and really think about how I’m using my time and what’s important.
It’s a combination of prioritizing, time management skills, and asking for help. Right now I’m in planning mode for next year. I’m trying to put structures in place that will allow me to do everything I want to do without getting stretched so thinly.
What did the leap into entrepreneurship look like for you?
I started my career in corporate. So entrepreneurship was definitely a big leap for me. It was a welcomed leap, and the best decision I’ve ever made. I could never go back to working for someone. However, It was definitely not easy, especially when you’re used to working for big companies that have the infrastructure in place. Where you have regular salary, health care, an IT department and all those things that I took for granted. It’s definitely a leap and was not an easy one but once I found my footing, it was incredibly liberating for me. I’d worked in corporate for many, many, many years. It was a real, real change. There was a lot that I had to get used to but it was great because I was able to take everything I had learned and apply them into something that was fully mine. It was the best thing ever.
While you were working for corporate, were you working on something on the side that was growing and decided that you had to put more time into that?
I had decided I wanted to take the leap while I was still working for a company. In my spare time, I was plotting and planning the big move, and I definitely recommend that to anyone who is thinking about segwaying from corporate to entrepreneurship. Give yourself as much time as possible to put all of the building blocks in place. You don’t just walk out and figure it out on your own dime. It was something I had had in the back of my mind before I took the big leap.
What is the bigger picture and long-term goal for The Other Festival?
Right now I’m looking at launching in some other cities. That’s really the next step and I’m exploring possibilities at the moment. I want it to be a New York centric thing but there are women all over the country who are looking for something like this and can benefit from something like this. I think it's really important to support women across the country.
Do you ever deal with comparing yourself and/or your work to someone else’s?
I do. I try not to. I advise people not to. But I think it’s human nature. You can’t help yourself. What I would say is that I don’t compete with other people. For me, I am happy for other women and their success but I would definitely note what other people are doing just because I have such aspirations for the work that I am doing. Sometimes I’ll look at something and think, “Wow, that’s amazing. I wish I’d done that. Why wasn’t I able to achieve that?”
It’s really important to check yourself in those situations and be grateful and happy with what you have achieved. Think about yourself as opposed to being too consumed or concerned on what everyone else is doing. I think that can just lead to dissatisfaction and such unhappiness. I don’t think it’s very productive at all. I’ll know what people do. I’ll be happy for them. But I’m more focused on what I’m doing and try not to look sideways too much.
What are three of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in your career journey?
I have learned to plan. I think that planning your career is key to your success, rather than just allowing it to happen to you. I think as an individual you should have a plan for what you want to do and what you wanna be. It doesn’t mean that you’re held to that but I think that if you don't have a sense of direction, you can get lost. Another lesson I’ve learned is not to procrastinate. I used to have a tendency to do so. Be decisive and make decisions quickly. Respond quickly to people and to personal ideas because great opportunities can pass you by very quickly. I think it is important as a leader and as a decision-maker to be very responsive to people in situations. And to touch on this conversation, use your network. Everything you need to achieve your goals is there in front of you and within the power of your network. Build strong networks at whatever point you're at in your life and in your career. You’ll find that the answer to everything that you are trying to build can be found through the people around you. I can’t stress that enough.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The most important advice that I can give to women is just to ask.