It’s All About the Comeback: Catalyzing Adversity to Build Something Bigger
Success is not measured by how many times you have been knocked down, but by how many times you get back up.
Event industry trailblazers Sarah Soliman Daudin, president and CEO of Soliman Productions, and Carrie Abernathy, founder and executive director of the Association for Women in Events, share how they practiced tenacity in the face of hardship to build something bigger. Listen now to experience the full episode!
Read on for a few of my favorite parts of our conversation:
Sarah, I have to say—this must come as no surprise to you—but I have been so inspired by you and the business that you’ve created and that you’re running, and I love your team. I would just love to better understand what inspired you to go off on your own and start your business?
SARAH: Most entrepreneurs—they kind of have this personality and this thing growing up or they’re like, ‘I’m going to be my own boss one day.’ I never had that inspiration or even motivation to start my own business until I was made to feel a little uncomfortable in the space that I was in. I just felt icky going to work. I’m sure we’ve all worked for organizations or groups where you just don’t feel like yourself going to work somewhere.
And I told myself, “Well, I have a few options, right? I can just stick it out and hope that that feeling goes away, or I can quit and go work for someone else, or I can quit and try to start my own thing just to see what would happen.”
And it wasn’t until I worked for a small business that I realized, wow, I have a lot of qualities that would be beneficial or would work in a scenario where I would have my own business. So, I kind of learned a lot about myself working for other people. And I saw that I ran their companies the way that I would run my own company.
So, the transition was, okay. Let’s just give it a shot at starting your own business. If worst comes to worse and things do not pick up and you don’t go anywhere, well, I always have—you talked about relationships, Courtney—like those relationships to sustain to fall back on and say, ‘You know what, guys, I tried this whole business ownership thing and it’s just not for me, so I’m ready to explore my opportunities with in another organization.’
Luckily, my story turned out to be that the business took off. I credit that to my team, which you also mentioned. They’re amazing people—super creative and hardworking and just such a good support system for me to be surrounded with every day. With my capabilities and their capabilities together, we’ve been able to create something that continues to grow and be successful. I’m excited to see what the future holds.
So, it’s a lot of work. It’s not for everybody. Business ownership is certainly not for everyone, but it’s something that I learned about myself that ended up being for me, and I just didn’t realize that until later on in my career, which is interesting.
Carrie, you started the Association for Women in Events and really pushed the envelope for the entire meetings and hospitality industry. I would love to hear about the moment that you realized that you had the skill set and the drive and you saw the need to create something new for the industry?
CARRIE: I don’t think there was a moment. I think it was several moments and a build up over several years, actually. And not once did I think I was the right person to lead that. Honestly, I didn’t think I had the qualifications. I just knew it had to be done.
I was searching so long for women-centric resources in the events community, and I just wasn’t finding anything, or I wasn’t finding what I thought were the right things. I was struggling to find mentors. I was frustrated over “manels” as they’re calling them now, I guess, panels of men. And just kind of disappointed in representation in the C-suite in general.
For several years, as a young woman in the events industry, and then in 2014, unfortunately, I was assaulted by a colleague in the events industry. I think that was a tipping point because I had reached out to several groups within the events industry, and I asked for resources and just received no direction from the industry. And I just felt so let down by that moment, that by the next year, I kind of brought together a group of women that were already trying to develop something small in their communities.
I was working with two women that—two other founders—that were doing brunch-and-learns for women in DC, and then two other women that were doing for senior planners, they were working on kind of a Lean In circle.
And I brought them together, and honestly, it just kind of organically fell together that we needed to do something bigger that our little groups here and there weren’t enough, and that I just felt so compelled to push us to that next level, that after that first discovery call and call with the founders, I bought the website, womeninevents.org without even asking anyone else that this was the right thing to do. It just felt like it was the next step.
There was a community that needed to be created. And if it didn’t exist, and if no one else would do it, I was the person to do it. It kind of fell on me. So, yeah, it wasn’t like one moment. It was just a lot of buildup and a lot of circumstances that led us here.
First of all, I’m so sorry that that happened to you. Secondly, I sincerely and wholeheartedly applaud you for taking something that is terrible and turning it into an opportunity for positive change—not just for you, but for many other people within our community.
CARRIE: I’m really proud of what we’ve done. And it’s definitely grown beyond my wildest dreams. And there are so many amazing things that have come out of it that I didn’t imagine in the beginning.
I started all of this so that there was a community. And then it became a membership organization. And then there were committees, and then we launched the events industry sexual harassment task force with all of the other big leaders in the events world. And then we created amazing content and brought people together through the conference Elevate.
I’m just so proud of the work. I don’t think that I ever dreamed that we would be doing this much for the events community. So, it’s been incredible and just more than I could have ever imagined.
I’d love to hear more about the events industry sexual harassment task force. I’m cheating a little bit because I am a member of the task force. But I’d love for you to tell the audience a little bit more about what that is, who’s involved and how they can get involved?
CARRIE: The vision of this group is to eradicate completely sexual harassment in the workplace for all of us in the events industry. That’s our mission. That’s our vision. And AWE brought together kind of all of the major power players in the events industry, from PCMH, MPI, to the Events Industry Council... There are so many groups, you’ll have to kind of visit the website, take a look at who’s involved.
But it’s great because once we approached everybody, everybody seemed to be immediately on board. It’s a great thanks to you, Courtney and Sarah, because of the #MeetingsToo movement you started, and everything you’re doing in that space. I think that really motivated everybody to get behind the task force. So, congratulations on that and for pushing us to actually put together a group to work on resources around eradication of sexual harassment in the workplace.
So basically, we’re a group that is putting together resources. We hold webinars, and we have guest speakers. We also have a pledge that individuals and companies can sign to work to eradicate sexual harassment. And so, I would suggest that everybody visit the website of whatever organization they’re most involved with. You’ll find the pledge on all of those sites, which is really exciting. And yeah, it’s just a really positive thing. And it’s been a really positive experience working together with all of these groups in this community.
Sarah, maybe you could speak to a little bit about the experience of speaking up about #MeetingsToo and what that was like for you, and your involvement in trying to prevent sexual harassment, or misconduct from happening at meetings and events.
SARAH: Yeah, I think what’s really incredible about this conversation is that I’m realizing that a lot of the impact that we’ve had as women in events has come from uncomfortable places. And, Carrie, your starting AWE, I mean, that was, like you said, a series of events that were uncomfortable for you that led to such an incredible organization that will continue to sustain in its mission, which is to support women in events. And I think that’s phenomenal.
And then Court, with what you and I have been able to accomplish together through #MeetingsToo, I mean, this started, as you know, just from a conversation that two girlfriends were having about sexual harassment and sharing your stories, and it kind of led into, like, what can we do?
I mean, we can sit here and talk it out over drinks, just you and I, or there is more that we can possibly do to create a better future for the next generation—and for the current generation of women who have had to endure sexual harassment in the dark and not have it be a topic of conversation that’s comfortable for everybody.
So, I think with the work that we’ve done through our presentations, creating the dialogue and continuing the dialogue, is something that I am extremely proud of. I think it’s always interesting. We’ve heard all kinds of feedback from people who believe sexual harassment is a problem in our industry to people who don’t. And that is often a very weird discussion to navigate with those individuals.
But I think we’ve always held true to ourselves and held true to our mission and again, the dialogue and the continuous conversations, having the task force and the pledge and all of the supporting organizations in the industry, as Carrie was mentioning, on board with recognizing that this is an issue and continues to be an issue and working together to hopefully eradicate this all together I think is incredibly strong and impactful and I could not be more proud of the efforts that we’ve put forth and will continue to put forth.
I’m curious, have you experienced any sort of backlash from anybody when you set out on your mission to make a positive impact and to stand up and tell your story?
CARRIE: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it’s funny. I was just shaking my head behind the scenes for everything that you’ve just mentioned, and Sarah just mentioned because I have so many stories like that. I feel like my entire career in putting AWE together has been based on pushing through those awkward and uncomfortable conversations. And just getting to the next challenge.
Luckily, AWE was met by overwhelming positivity for the most part. But I can draw from several uncomfortable conversations that I had—one, even with one of my mentors in the industry that was male when I brought to him the idea and was excited and we were launching and the board was coming together. And he was like, “But Carrie, there’s already female leadership in the C-suite. This organization isn’t needed.”
I remember feeling so deflated that because he was able to point out one single example of a woman in another organization C-suite that he thought that I felt represented, and he thought that there was no need for a community of women in the events industry.
And I’ve had women, of course, come forward and say, ‘This is great, but men shouldn’t be involved.’ I felt really strongly from the beginning that men should be a part of the solution, that they should be a part of the community. And there were a lot of people who didn’t feel that way. And I wasn’t prepared to meet that head on.
But there were a lot of women that came forward and said,
“I’m not going to be a part of this group if there are men involved.”
I just really had to kind of put my foot down about my convictions and what I felt was right for the community and have held to it. And I think it’s been really successful. But there have definitely been those conversations.
Is there anything that you feel like we can do to help make sure that men realize that it’s a positive thing to be connecting with women?
SARAH: I think it’s exactly what we’re doing right now. It’s talking about it. It’s having honest dialogue about the fact that they’re necessary to have in the advancement of women. I know when we talk about sexual harassment, there’s a little bit of that fear there. But at the end of the day, when you lay your head down on the pillow at night, if your conscience is clear, then there’s nothing for you to be worried about.
So, for the men that have been involved in AWE or other groups, other discussions about women’s issues and sexual harassment and all of the above, those are men that have nothing to hide, and they want to be a voice of impact and change and progression for women and everyone else in our society.
So, I think it’s exactly what we’re doing now. It’s just maintaining the dialogue, keeping the conversation honest and flowing and inviting men to the table. And I also think that we’ve all had our conversations. Carrie, I know you and I have had many conversations behind the scenes of backlash and negativity that we have received from the industry for various reasons, whether it was first time starting your own business or just people that aren’t appreciative about you having a voice and actually utilizing it the way that you should.
And Court, I know you can relate, too. I think we just need to keep trucking in doing exactly what we’re doing. Because at the end of the day, we really are impacting more people in a positive manner and creating a path for that next generation that is a little bit more clear and direct for them to navigate the industry.
I think that it’s okay to not be liked by everybody.
That was something that was really hard for me to accept for a long time because I want everyone to like me. But it’s okay to not be like. And I think that’s kind of the stage that the three of us have probably hit is, you know what, we’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and that is okay. Maybe we’re for the coffee drinkers, you know what I mean?
It’s okay to not be liked and to still sustain and be fierce in your message and what you stand for. So, yeah, I mean, I, you know, I am extremely proud, like I said before, of what we’ve been able to accomplish and the fact that we just keep going.
If I could applaud and cheer into my microphone without breaking the episode, I would. Sarah, what would your final piece of advice be to the audience today?
SARAH: Don’t be so hard on yourself. I know that we tend to be our worst critic. And the goal is to constantly improve day-in-and-day-out for yourself and for those around you.
But as women, I find that we are a little bit too harsh on ourselves, and it’s okay to have bad days, and it’s okay to own them, and then it’s okay to put your hair up and red lipstick on and go out and conquer the world the next day.
Find your happy place, be true to yourself, find your voice and use it. So, don’t sit back. If you find that you are ready to take on a leadership role or do something that’s outside of your comfort zone, like apply for a board position as Carrie said, there is room at the table.
Don’t wait for anyone to extend the chair. As I always say, build your own table, pull up your own chair and just have at it.
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