Sierra Barter, co-founder and CEO of the PVD Lady Project, earned a degree in advertising and marketing communications from Johnson & Wales University in 2009. She worked for WaterFire Providence and a small web firm before joining her alma mater as social media coordinator 2012. Now pursuing an MBAwith an emphasis in marketing at JWU, she and co-founder, Julie Sygiel have applied for nonprofit status for this professional social group.
PBN: What inspired you to launch the PVD Lady Project?
BARTER: After I graduated from Johnson & Wales [University], I started my first job at WaterFire Providence and my first business, an event design and organization company. I was going to networking events and I noticed that it was often the same people – mostly older men. And, when you're starting a business, you often have questions that may seem “dumb” and you want to ask them with confidence and also get honest feedback ... which isn't always easy, especially with someone with whom you may find it hard to relate.
In late 2011, I met co-founder Julie Sygiel, at an event for her company Dear Kates, a lingerie outlet. We had communicated via email and my company wrote a post for her blog that summer, but we had never met in person. When we met she hugged me and said, “You're ‘my’ people!” That was our “aha” moment: to find “your” people. We met for coffee that week and kept telling each other about all these other amazing women from other areas of our lives – college, past jobs – “around Providence.” And we said, “Why don't these women know each other, and more importantly, do business with each other?” We decided to have a formal event to get them all in the same place.
PBN: Who is eligible to join, how many members do you have in each chapter and what are your goals for growth?
BARTER: Anyone who identifies as a woman can join. That's it. We feel that many other groups are limited to either industry-level-memberships or are exclusive. We have five different membership levels ranging from $25 to $500. Affordability is also really important to us and we make sure to have a mix of events throughout the year from free to $35 a ticket.
We just launched chapters in Boston in January and in New Haven in October of 2013, and have about 50 members in each. We hope to have 500 in Boston this year and 300 in both New Haven and Providence for the year. In 2013, we had 250 members in Providence.
PBN: When and why did you apply for nonprofit status and what benefits do you believe that will bring?
BARTER: We applied for nonprofit status on Jan. 2 to operate as Lady Project Org, which would include any chapters. We went back and forth on the nonprofit versus for-profit approach and felt to continue our mission, nonprofit was the best choice. As a nonprofit, we can apply for grants, work with sponsors to integrate our brands into events and offer our members a tax-deductible amount for membership and events.
With three chapters – New Haven, Providence and Boston – in place, we plan on expanding to four or five other cities in the next year. These chapters will also be nonprofits in their communities.
And, as we grow, our city managers will continue to run their chapters in other cities. City managers and their teams are all volunteers. Lady Project Org will then provide resources, with a small staff, to our growing chapters, solicit sponsors and plan the annual summits.
PBN: In creating an “Old Boys Club” for women, as you’ve called it, are you setting back the clock on feminism or actually empowering women?
BARTER: We’re definitely empowering women to build their networks, step outside of their industry for contacts and to lean on each other. There's an unfortunate misconception about women in business: either that we don't take our businesses (ones we own or ones we work for) seriously, or that it's cut-throat. I don't think either is true and PVD Lady Project is proving that perception wrong.
In less than two years, PVD Lady Project has become a group of successful, driven women. Our members define their own successes and their own careers, which I feel is a feminist trait. We have women who have their own businesses full time, others who work during the day but have a side business. We have plenty of working moms and stay-at-home wives and moms.
It's important for women, on their own terms, to define their own success and what makes them happy and feel fulfilled. I hope our group connects with other women doing the same and provides them with a place to bounce around ideas and even maybe do a little business.
Having male mentors and supporters is also important. We feel it's important to have mentors from all walks of life. But we promote “awesome” women, of all ages and industries, doing amazing things.
PBN: What are your plans for and who will be your audience at your next major event, the summit on April 12?
BARTER: The second annual Lady Project Summit will be on Saturday, April 12, at the Southside Cultural Center and it'll be an all-day conference with keynote speakers and professional workshops. The purpose of the summit is to have an all-day event where we can have members from all our chapters come together, hear speakers, have workshops and be able to meet one another. Last year's Summit had 100 attendees and several keynote speakers as well as 20 professional workshops through the day on everything from letterpress to negotiating a salary.
Among the speakers this year are Meredith Walker, co-founder of comedian Amy Poehler's Smart Girls web series for adolescent girls; Jennifer Tress, author of the book “You're Not Pretty Enough,” TED Talks Speaker Hannah Brencher and a media panel with ladies from BUST Magazine, Entrepreneur, Huffington Post and Business Insider. We're expecting 150 women from all over the country to meet other like-minded ladies and hang out with us for the day. We've also partnered with Mailchimp, Squarespace and The Dean Hotel for the event. We are so excited to bring women from all over into Providence.
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