Vanessa Dawson is a source of energy – she does everything and makes it look effortless. We met several years ago when I attended a “Girl’s Raising” event in New York. I was encouraged by the positive energy in the room, the incredible stories of female founders and funders, and the general enthusiasm that she led. Years later, she’s leading The Vinetta Project with events, a talent agency, and presence in over seven cities. Read on to learn about how she did it and how she’s got her eyes on the prize.
What is the Vinetta Project? You’re more immediately known for the events that you held, but what has the organization evolved to?
Our goal is to be the leading ecosystem or dealflow pipeline for female founders. We want more women to get access to capital, networks, resources, and equal access. We’re about changing the gender ratios in investment and providing a platform to do so. Vinetta Project consists of two different arms: chapter and events model (the advocacy arm), which is media, content and connecting people. It’s also where we do our showcase events. The second part of the business is what we’re calling our “agency” side (the collective). It’s where we hand select top talent and help them scale and grow. They’re companies that are post-accelerator, pre-series A mode. We want to help them grow scale and traction, and get them on their way.
What was the origin of all of this, and how were you able to encourage notable women to be a part of it?
When I launched Girls Raising, I was really focused on the capital raised for my own start up. It was a way to elevate myself within the community, I wanted more access to venture capitalists and I wanted to speak to them on a different basis, not just pushing my own deal on them. It gave me a way to approach investors, successful entrepreneurs, and have an open and candid conversation with them. It was also a way to showcase up and coming founders.
There are amazing female founder companies that aren’t getting looked at. I would always hear time and time again from venture capitalists that they would love to invest in female founded companies, but there “weren’t any to invest in”. This was my way of showing them.
It started with a single event, then you realize the power of what it’s like to bring a community together. It was about building a different feeling than any event that existed. We play to women’s strengths. We’re more collaborative. It’s a conversational community, where the sentiment is “together we rise” vs. the competitive energy. That’s the kind of energy I want to create.
“We play to women’s strengths. We’re more collaborative. It’s a conversational community, where the sentiment is “together we rise” vs. the competitive energy.”
It’s been about two and a half years now.
What does the phrase “Your Network is your Net Worth” mean to you?
The female space back even two years ago wasn’t very “buzzy”, it was still growing. It’s trendy now to have women in tech, women in film. Reaching out in the sense of wanting to support women, was an easy sell. Now there’s hundreds of organizations that cater to this audience. I identified women that were movers and shakers in this space, but probably didn’t get access to do a lot of this stuff at the time. It’s about identifying the right people, giving them exposure, and playing to the fact that they get to support the next generation of women.
It’s funny what happens when you just ask for something. Most people just assume that people will say no. But the power of asking is 80% of what it takes. That’s most of the battle. They’ll say yes or no.
“Most people just assume that people will say no. But the power of asking is 80% of what it takes.”
Any key tips on how to network or grow your community?
You need to be very proactive about building relationships. And build relationships with people at the times where you don’t need anything. Don’t try to build relationships with investors when you’re trying desperately to close your round. Build it with them when you’re thinking of an idea when you want advice / feedback, or when you’re in a great growth mode. Continually expand your network and not always doing it when you need something. Just build a relationship for what it is. Ask for advice and get twenty times gold in return. Always be inquisitive, and have a thirst for knowledge.
“Ask for advice and get twenty times gold in return. Always be inquisitive, and have a thirst for knowledge.”
Talking to your migration, you more recently moved to LA. What does moving from Vancouver to New York and back to the west coast affect the nature of your work?
It’s affected my work in a positive way, in that it forces you to expand your network. The community and the region for the people I meet grows. It’s draining on me as a sole founder (back then), but it’s just so valuable, and building these relationships and face to face relationships is so powerful too. I think that it was necessary for me to travel. The niche market we’re dealing with anyway is a small market place, so staying in just New York or just in LA wouldn’t have the same effect that we have now. You learn to deal with jet lag.
There was an article that you were part of that talked about relationships and being an entrepreneur. Everyone has advice from finding the right person to finding the right balance. What’s your sweet spot around that?
You need to focus on yourself and what you’re striving for in your work and in your life. Things just fall into place on the relationship side of things. I think too often women (and society) emphasize that your relationship is the be all and end all of what you will do as a women. I think as long as you’re involved in your personal growth, that the right person will come along to respect and understand what you’re doing. I don’t think you search for it to find it, I think you search in yourself and it comes to you.
You had a startup before (Evry), I’m curious about your breadth of experience and how that transitioned you from one thing to another?
Evry was a huge learning experience. I think too often people don’t talk about their “failures”, but by taking something on and failing at it is when you will learn the most about yourself and about business and ideas. Evry was insane, from raising capital to bringing a team together, to user testing an idea to marketing…I would have never understood what it takes unless you actually physically do it and go through the steps.
The reality was that I left the idea too early on it, but we needed to raise more money and it wasn’t going as planned. I started Girls Raising on the side to facilitate my access to more investors, and then it took over. It’s interesting when you’re pushing so hard on something, to get people attracted, and all of a sudden all this inbound happens on something else, and it felt easier. It felt like there was a user base there already that I could bring together.
I think that’s a reality of doing business, knowing when to leave an idea. When do you make that decision?
I don’t think you do know, I think it was easy for me since I had something else. Your ego gets in place too, when you’re convinced that something is going to work and you don’t want others to know that it’s not working or failing. Everyone is rolling along boasting revenue and traction, but it’s such bullshit. That’s the reality of the industry. It’s nice that I had something I could naturally progress into vs. suddenly making the decision to end something and move on.
It’s funny that you mention that, because it seems like I have met a number of people lately that have had that gap.
Pivot is a big word in that kind of phase. It’s the word we can all use where we’re in the state of “what are we doing”? There’s tons of people that are doing that.
What do you think that a female entrepreneur does fundamentally different from a man when it comes to forming a business and raising money?
Women always underestimate how far along they are already on how skilled / knowledgeable they are. They always downplay themselves. Inevitably, that’s also awesome because then you know that often a women’s company is going to be way further along than a man of equal. But on the other end, they’re not as risky because they don’t chase more capital or make decisions that are a bit daring.
How does one go about pushing themselves to become more ‘risky’?
You can’t beat what you can’t see – we need more examples of stories told, of the successes they’ve gone through, and finding more role models. It inspires.
You pull off all this work in such an effortless looking way (Vanessa bursts out laughing), but we all know how hard you work. What keeps you moving onward and upward in a space that isn’t really linear?
It’s a rollercoaster. One thing that my partners and I do is to go through an “8-step”, and it goes through our goals and our achievements. As long as you’re reviewing that consistently, you can match back to where you were and what you accomplished. It helps you realize the progress that you’ve made, and compare where you’ve been and where you’re going.
Keep a work life balance. The North American mentality is to work 24/7 or you’re not working hard enough or achieving enough, and you’re never going to make it unless you’re at the office until dawn. It’s so wrong. Make sure that you take the time off that you need, and really disconnect from technology. Allow yourself time to breathe and reset on your mission and vision. It’s about Goal Setting and Resetting.
“It’s about Goal Setting and Resetting.”