To call Lana Pozhidaeva "dynamic" is an understatement. The Russian-born entrepreneur and activist arrived in the United States as a model, before founding a nonprofit foundation that provides scholarships to minority students. Her latest venture, WE Talks, is a monthly event series for women entrepreneurs and professionals – an idea Pozhidaeva came up with after attending "a very intimidating, big-time networking event." Pozhidaeva mustered the courage to ask a question into the microphone, yet was cut abruptly cut off by the host in what she describes as a "horrible" experience. Pozhidaeva turned her anger into action, recruiting the help of a friend in experiential marketing with the goal of creating events that feel truly empowering for women.
So far covering topics including fundraising, branding, digital marketing, and communications, the series aims to deliver inspiring, valuable content within a supportive environment that facilitates organic connections. And WE Talks' reception has proven Pozhidaeva is onto something: attendance has grown by 50 percent monthly, and the event series has landed a number of strategic partnerships – in November, they'll be hosting a pitch competition and giving away nearly $200k in prizes.
I sat down with Pozhidaeva to learn more about her entrepreneurial journey and the magic of WE Talks:
Megan Bruneau: You were a model, then ran a nonprofit, and now you've started WE Talks. Where did you learn to have the courage to "put yourself out there" and take risks again and again?
Lana Pozhidaeva: I firmly believe that risk-taking is in my DNA. I grew up playing tennis, competing on a high-level junior circuit in my country and simply couldn’t envision a predictable and “normal” life in Moscow. I come from a very patriarchal society in which women are encouraged to study and meet their future husband in their early 20s, after which they are expected to marry and take care of home. A typical entrepreneurial situation in Russia oftentimes includes one’s husband or father purchasing a beauty salon/ retail brand/ fashion magazine and the woman managing it, usually without positive profit margins. I’ve always known that a different, more modern and equitable path existed for me.
Bruneau: To what do you attribute your entrepreneurial courage?
Pozhidaeva: I grew up in 1990’s Moscow, during one of the most dramatic times in Russian history. When the Soviet Union collapsed, both of my parents were forced to quit high-ranking government jobs and start their careers from scratch, trying to embrace entrepreneurship – something that used to be condemned during the communist regime. In 1998, Russia experienced one of the worst financial crises in its history. The situation was so unstable and unpredictable that my parents thought it would be safer for me to enroll in college two years early. At the age of 15, I took high school graduation tests and then the college entrance exams.
Because my GPA was high I received the generous state scholarship covering my tuition and living expenses. Most of the students studying with me were coming from a different socioeconomic status of the “oligarchy” world, and I was an outlier – a student living at a lifestyle more “normal,” or middle class, than that of luxury my peers enjoyed. Without many friends at school who shared my lifestyle, I chose to focus on my studies, graduating at the top of the class. It seems that with time and age we acquire wisdom and I am now incredibly grateful for something I used to see as an unfair experience.
Bruneau: What's the biggest challenge you're currently facing as you grow WE Talks?
Pozhidaeva: WE Talks began as just an idea and quickly become a rapidly growing community. We expected around 30 attendees at our first gathering and were delighted to host over 50 guests. Since then, our monthly growth rate has exceeded 50%. WE Talks just had an event in partnership with Topshop, in which we hosted over 100 attendees, including more than 30 female founders and entrepreneurs. My current challenge is to keep growing at a sustainable pace and to choose the right strategic partnerships for us. After the first few events, multiple brands and speakers started reaching out, offering partnerships and collaborations. I find it very, very hard to say “No” and that’s something I should learn to do better.
Bruneau: Why is now a more important time than ever for a WE Talks?
Pozhidaeva: "WE” stands for Women’s Empowerment, Encouragement, and Entrepreneurship, and I believe it's through these actions that women can step up as leaders and entrepreneurs to pioneer change in our respective industries. It’s a time for us to come together and support one another, as we level the playing field for generations to come. That’s why I was so surprised to be shot down at the networking event I went to last fall. To me, networking events are about gaining knowledge from like-minded people in industries outside my own, and practicing important leadership skills like public speaking.
Of course, networking is a skill that takes practice, but I think everyone is at a disadvantage if we don’t support those that may have less developed skills. . Showing up to the event means you’re taking action to better yourself and that’s something we respect at WE TALKS, regardless of how long you’ve been in your industry or how comfortable you are speaking in front of big crowds. We’re here to connect women in an environment that fosters growth, where dialogue is valued more than seniority. If our attendees learn something new, share with each other, and encourage each other then we are a success.