How are your events & programs still meeting the needs of more than 10% of the population your mission statement says you're serving?

Read Time: 5-7 minutes 

By: Heather Wentler 

As I sit and read another email for a networking event from 6-8PM all I can think is "Why?" For so many reasons, why?  It’s 2024, why do we still need these 2 hour events before or after work hours that could be an email or social media post? If you and I have had any sort of interaction over the years, you know this isn’t a new soapbox issue for me, and it was something that was kind of curbed during the 2020-2021 years, and I hoped wouldn’t come back.

Who's "Community" Are We Talking About 

So many entrepreneurs come to me and say “I could go to events every morning and night of the week”. Exactly! There are too many general events that claim to promote entrepreneurship and community building. Let’s be honest, we all know that 90% of the attendees at these events are the same people who regularly attend, so yeah, they have formed a community…just one that’s hard for new people to enter.  I often tell people they could make a full-time job out of attending events. Part of making this part of your entrepreneurial journey is figuring out which are worth attending, which ones bring you joy, and which ones you can just delete the invite for.

Where you live makes a difference in the event offerings as well. I live in Madison, which is my main community. I’ve noticed while touring and getting involved with entrepreneurial communities across the state that each region has different takes on events and what the community wants. If I attend an entrepreneurial event, that isn’t just a “pass the business cards” type of event, in Madison that has about 30 people, that’s a winning event! Madison, for about 5 years now, has networking & “tell your story” events burnout. In our community, we all mostly know each other or have a maximum of 3 degrees of separation. We all communicate or follow each other too, so if someone mentions your name you can bet that organization leaders are looking you up on social media and/or reaching out saying something like “I hear great things about you and would like to learn more”. 

Elsewhere in the state, though, networking events are huge. When we used to have events in Milwaukee in 2018 and 2019, and even now with the organizations we partner with, if there are less than 50 people at an event, it’s considered a bust. 

Doyenne hosted a booth at a Women’s Business day-long conference in Eau Claire in October 2023, over 600 attendees came to the event! Green Bay has a similar event where 200+ women attend annually (I love that they have a virtual option so I can attend from my computer in Madison and not lose 2 days of work and still learn and meet others). I felt these events wouldn’t be as successful in Madison or Mlwaukee, solely because they’re the main event in their community, so everyone turns out. Btw, we had so much fun at these!

A few of the entrepreneurs we work with from the “Northwoods” areas drive to Madison or Milwaukee a few days a month because of the plethora of entrepreneur events we have that aren’t offered in their communities. This blows my mind. With as connected as we are in every aspect of our lives, why do they have to drive for half a day multiple times a month to get traction for their business?

Events Are On The Clock Time

There’s so much I could go on tangent and relay stats to some of the points I’ve made already in this article, but let’s get back on point…Attending any of these events - both in-person and virtual (when offered) - is work time. And this includes the travel time.

Sometimes these events are even more taxing on your body, physically, mentally, and emotionally, than “just doing the work” of running and maintaining your business. If you’re not naturally an extrovert, attending events can even feel like putting in time and a half, and sometimes requires you to take more time to recuperate afterward. For me, sometimes going to events feels like I just ran a half-marathon. Afterward, I noticed how tight I held my body, my shoulders never fully relaxed, my face hurts from clenching my jaw, and I’m rethinking all of my comments and how I introduced myself and Doyenne to people and criticizing myself, while simultaneously sending “It was great meeting you at x-event” follow-up emails from the business cards I collected and couldn’t fully grasp what they were telling me when we met.

From an organization leader standpoint, here’s how I think about if/when an event should happen or what we can do instead:

1. Is someone else already doing this? 

Part of being a leader in the community you serve is knowing what else is going on. The number of mailing lists I’m on feels excessive, but I try to open and read every one because I want to make sure we’re not duplicating. If I see something Doyenne was thinking about doing, I’ll usually contact the organizer and see if we can partner or cross-promote instead. 

I admit this wasn’t always our policy within Doyenne, and sometimes collaboration just can’t happen due to the event setup. We’ve done so many events over the 12 years we’ve operated, of which many were already happening in our community. I’ll admit we were naive and were also told “we’re not interested” by many other organizations when we tried to collaborate so we felt we needed to do our own thing. The number of times people have told me “It seems like Doyenne is trying to do it all” felt like a dig, and also, a criticism I/we needed to hear - and sometimes you need to hear it a million times before you actually reflect on it or rethink your justification as to why you’re doing something. 

The same is true for the organizations that said, “We don’t want to collaborate,” as they also learned there’s power in partnership and we now partner with many of them. Partnerships leverage communities and support breaking into new communities—the ones that may not feel that your organization is a place where they’re welcome or invited. These partnerships support your organization's continued success and growth.

2. What are the desired outcomes for attendees? 

I’m tired of events that say things like “attend to discuss how x-community is failing x-populations courtesy of our sponsor Y-corporation”. We all know what this is. You’re checking a box to get the check or fulfill the sponsorship agreement the corporation gave you. Unless you’re going to tell me at the event or in a follow-up message how you’re taking steps to address how not to fail populations anymore, it’s not real change and not impactful for the populations you’re claiming to support. 

If you’re doing the work you already know how the populations you serve aren’t being supported, it’s probably part of your mission statement or organization overview. Tell me how we’re going to see change happen! Throwing out random numbers such as “we’re going to see x-growth in y-timeframe” is also bogus unless you’ve put a strategy together, are ready to execute, and are looking for people to do the same. Please stop wasting time for me to hit replay on talking points that haven’t changed in the 12 years I’ve been asked to speak about or attend these events. 

I get it, we all need the sponsorship money to be able to do the work, but are we really meeting our mission if we’re just box-checking to get paid? I remember being interviewed a few years ago and asked, “What happens when Doyenne isn’t needed anymore because society has become more gender equitable?” <deep sigh> Point blank response: “This isn’t going to happen in my lifetime.” The bigger message I have is, that it’s not going to happen in my lifetime because we’re not actually wanting the change to happen. I’ve watched margins for gender parity continue to slide after beginning to close some of those gaps in the mid-2010’s. We need to continue holding each other accountable for how we’re reaching goals and our organization’s priorities and principles, and we need to change those as society changes.

 So, when we think about desired outcomes for events, what are they? Do we…

  • What to check a box? (sometimes these are necessary and a value add, that’s a future article…)

  • Do you want attendees to leave feeling like their time was valued and that they can take the messages back to their everyday lives to create success?

  • How are we measuring success of these desired outcomes? How do we hold ourselves accountable for what we say we’re doing through the event?

3. Does it have to be during off-hours? 

Every hour of the typical entrepreneur’s day is measured by what they should, could, or would be doing. Sometimes, they’re pulled in so many directions that just trying to maintain the craziness equates to a successful day.

I understand the required timing of evening or early morning events, not all entrepreneurs work in their businesses full-time, and they have a job to report to. But, are there ways we - as the organizations that claim to meet them where they’re at and support their success & growth - don’t tax them more by only having certain times and spaces dedicated to networking and support occurring? How can we change the rhetoric that only those who continue to show up will be successful when we know this does not equate to the success of a business or the entrepreneur?

Over 70% of entrepreneurs struggle with mental health. Do you know what the number 1 way to curb mental health issues is? Rest and do things that bring you joy. Sometimes medication and therapy are necessary, and I fully support you getting what you need to be able to be as close to what you consider 100%. 

Organizations can also support this by offering a variety of services. I hear from many organization leaders and sponsors, “I’m tired of virtual or hybrid events” or “I thought this went away in 2021.” No! That is such a closed-minded way of thinking. You can do events that meet people’s needs without asking them to show up in a physical location and make the experience equitable without your organization requiring additional staffing or more tech. It’s really a matter of if you want to. 

Remember how I mentioned I work with entrepreneurs who will drive 4 hours multiple times a month to attend events? So, let’s say they do this 3 times a month, that 12 hours a month and 144 hours (or 3.6 weeks) a year could have been devoted to working in their business. Or time spent caring for themselves so they don’t burn out of leading their business through the early stages. These entrepreneurs continue to tell me, and fill it out on their event/coaching surveys, that they appreciate that Doyenne still offers virtual or hybrid options. When you say you “meet people where they’re at,” it’s more than just fulfilling the needs they have based on where they’re on their entrepreneurial journey. It’s finding a way to accommodate their lives and going out of your way to make them feel appreciated, respected, and acknowledged. 

Staffing Demands 

Your staff may prefer not to work early morning or late evenings too. Staffing outside of “normal business hours” creates scheduling issues. If someone has to work a 6-8 PM event, how are you accommodating them not working their 9-5 shift PLUS stay on later? Your employees need rest too. You know you ask a lot of them. And the communities you serve ask a lot from them. Taking care of your employees can be more impactful and supportive to your organization’s overall success than offering a 7-9 AM coffee event or 6-8 PM networking showcase.

I’ve said this before for a plethora of topics: We’ve backtracked since the “pandemic times” of 2020-2021. I understand that people wanted more face-to-face connection after 18-20 months of staying away from each other. We learned by having gone through this that part of the reason only certain entrepreneurs are able to succeed is because they have the privilege of showing up in a location. 

Here’s my question that I hope you’ll take away from this article, how are your events & programs still meeting the needs of more than 10% of the population your mission statement says you’re serving? What changes (big or small) can you implement? Pushing back, disrupting, causing good trouble, being the PITA person in the room, it’s worth it. It doesn’t always have to be a big change either, small changes within your organization can create large impacts and movements. 

As I continue to repeat, we’re all in this together. Your work is important, and you’re doing great at it. We can all do better, there’s always room for growth and improvement. Let me know if there are ways Doyenne can support or collaborate.