Over one thousand aspiring business women flocked to UC Irvine’s Student Center last Wednesday for the first annual Connect Women to Power conference hosted by Board of Equalization (BOE) member Diane Harkey. The event drew mixed responses, as some attendees felt that the conference could have attracted more UCI students and provided better resources to entrepreneurs.
The day-long conference aimed to “teach leadership, problem solving, conflict resolution and life management strategies and techniques” to female entrepreneurs through a series of booths, lectures and panels.
Guest speakers included Christine Simmons, President and COO of the Los Angeles Sparks, Trisha Nguyen, Panda Express National Manager of Operation Support and Services and Lucy Pinto, Google’s Program Manager of Diversity Markets. Over one hundred staff members from the BOE also attended, according to Office of Diane Harkey Staff Member Lisa M. Rinati.
The conference drew 1,214 attendees; however, the majority were not students, but already-established Orange County entrepreneurs.
Jessica Salcedo, a representative at the OC Small Business Development Center’s booth at the conference, expressed both her appreciation for the event and her disappointment in the low turnout of UCI business students.
“It’s awesome that UCI is hosting events which bring awareness to the free services provided to small businesses and entrepreneurs,” said Salcedo, also a recent UCI graduate. “I’m happy that Diane Harkey was able to put this together for the community . . . but unfortunately, I haven’t seen too many students come out today.”
Of those who did attend, only some seemed empowered by the motivational tone of the keynote lectures. Most talks centered around platitudes, like Trisha Nguyen’s suggestion that attendees “serve God and contribute to others to make a positive change” and Christine Simmons’s advice to “be bold” and “embrace some of the characteristics of our male counterparts.”
However, some prospective entrepreneurs in attendance were dissatisfied with the overabundance of motivational speaking and the lack of logical business tips.
“I’m happy with what everyone’s been saying, but nothing has been really memorable or helpful so far to learn how to run a business,” said Sheryl Atar, a non-student attendee. “There could be more.”
Speaker Fiona Ma from the BOE’s Second District argued that the event was not solely intended for education through guest speakers, but rather as a venue for women in business to gather and network.
“[Attendees should] collect as many business cards as they can; not just from each other, but from the staff members present,” said Ma.
Host Diane Harkey agreed that the aims of the conference were not only to “connect women to power,” but to connect women with each other.
“[Attendees] should reach out to the women they know to help boost their career or business,” said Harkey. “It’s estimated 80 percent of new jobs are secured through networking.”
The organizer of the conference, Republican Fourth District Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey, is a UCI alumna herself. Harkey graduated with a BA in economics, which launched her 30-year career in corporate finance and banking. She first entered politics as a member of the Dana Point City Council in 2004, and in 2014, she ran for the California State Board of Equalization to represent the Fourth District and won.
Harkey says that the Connect Women to Power conference at UCI is an effort to extend to young women some of the same resources that helped her move up the ladder in finance and politics.
“As a University of California, Irvine alumna, it gives me great pride to bring this opportunity to a campus that gave me tools for success,” Harkey wrote in the conference’s welcome statement.
Harkey was scheduled to introduce and provide closing statements for the Connect Women to Power event, but the conference ended abruptly when Harkey failed to offer the planned closing statements, instead opting for a quick send-off before the last keynote speaker, Lucy Pinto, took the stage.
“This was just a fabulous event, and next year’s is going to be better,” said Harkey. “But actually, I don’t even know how it can be.”