Success stories can seem just as fantastical as the fairy tales you (may have) loved growing up: Bold career woman finds herself in the right place at the right time, and poof, her fairy godmother mentor snaps her fingers, transforming our hero into an overnight success who brings home a seven-figure salary, jet-sets around the world spreading her you-can-have-it-all gospel, all while looking awesome and Instagramming the whole thing. Umm...really? Why do we so rarely hear the other side of the story — the false starts, the waves of doubt, the failures, and the fuck-ups? Those late-night worries and, occasionally, breakthroughs that are so relatable to the rest of us?
Welcome to Self-Made, Refinery29's column spotlighting the real stories that fueled success — the wins, the fails, and the curveballs — proving there's no one path to getting what you want.
Dee Poku-Spalding is the co-founder and CEO of WIE (Women Inspiration and Enterprise), a membership platform for women leaders that grew from a single conference into a portfolio of four brands designed to advance and connect women in the workplace – the WIE Network (you can apply here), The Other Festival, A Dinner For Ladies and Black Women Raise. Connecting people is her job, but before that Poku-Spalding was the founder of Right Angle, a marketing consultancy firm that focused on strategic partnerships. She also spent 15 years as a Hollywood executive at Paramount Pictures and Focus Features, overseeing the promotions for films such as Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, Sofia Coppola’s 'Lost in Translation' and Ang Lee’s 'Brokeback Mountain'.
Refinery29 caught up with Poku-Spalding to chat about how she turned her passion into her paycheck, her biggest career regret, and what being self-made means to her.
You majored in mathematics at university. How did you end up a marketing executive and entrepreneur?
It was definitely a circuitous route!
I studied math because I have immigrant parents who really wanted me to do something that would be grounding and would help me get good jobs. It made sense to me in that moment because I was good at math and science. And so I went to university originally to study electronic engineering. I got to my engineering class and it was just all white dudes. There may have been a couple of other women, but certainly I was the only Black woman. And I think the only Black person.
It was odd. Thats a charitable way of putting it. I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t very happy, so I tried to swap. I wanted to study English literature and they wouldn’t let me because I specialized so early in the sciences. (In the UK, where I’m from, our education system is set up so you specialize very early on.) So the only thing I could do was math. And I loved it actually.
Then, as I was graduating, I was still sort of following my parents’ wishes. I got these job offers at big accounting firms and at banks, and I just had an epiphany. I really don’t want to do this. The negotiation with my parents was I would take a year out. And a lot of people do that in the UK, but most people take a year out and they go backpacking or traveling. I took a year out to do another job. That job ended up being in fashion. Fashion wasn’t the thing, but it was closer to the thing for me.
I’m often asked by young women How did you find your passion? Everyone is looking for their passion. I wouldn’t say I started out thinking “I know exactly where I want to be.” So I always say, you should follow the thing that makes sense in the moment, and you get to where you need to be. Its harder to try and find it — it’s much easier to go with the flow of the universe.
That’s how I’ve charted my own career without intentionally doing so. I’ve seen open doors and opportunities and just gone for it even if it didn’t make chronological sense.
So what you’re saying is, it’s okay to be a bit lost. There’s this fear that if you go with what you think right now you’re going to screw yourself out of future opportunities. That’s not really true.
It’s not true. It’s not true of anyone I know! I have friends in their late-30s and early-40s who are still pivoting. The time we live in now, it is important to have multiple paths and a side hustle. So I don’t think it affects your career adversely to commit to something and then change your mind. It’s more about amassing knowledge and information that allows you to make more informed decisions.
Because what do you know when you’re 18? You may think you know, but you don’t. It’s only by process of elimination that you get to where you want to be.
So let’s talk about where you are now. How did you come up with the idea for your business, WIE: Women Inspiration & Enterprise.
WIE happened by accident. A friend and I got invited to this amazing dinner with all of these successful women, women you’d know by first name — Oprahs and Hillaries — and we were there feeling quite lucky. The purpose of that dinner was ostensibly to bring senior level women together to pay it forward. My friend and I thought it was great, but the young women that these women wanted to court were not in the room — there was a gaping hole where the people who they meant to support were not part of the conversation.
So, we decided to do this one-off conference. It was called the WIE symposium, and it was very broad, because it was never supposed to be a long-term thing. We talked about everything — child marriage, violence against women, leadership in the workplace. This was back in 2010 when women’s conferences were not the thing they are now.
As you mentioned, this concept is now everywhere— we’ve almost reached a saturation point for “women’s empowerment.” How do you feel about that?
I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m thrilled that women’s issues are at the forefront of these conversations, as opposed to a side conversation, which is what it felt like at the time. It was much, much harder to get sponsors, and other people to really respond in the same way. We were struggling to get people to write very small checks because we were seen as this niche. Now it just feels like every brand, every investor wants to be in the women business. It’s a bittersweet feeling, thinking about what a struggle it was to put on these events and get attention for them, compared to what’s happening now. I’m thrilled that we’re in this place where we are now where you have to take women seriously.
On the other, this is not a hashtag. Particularly in terms of brands, who use hashtag feminism to sell things, I find that hard to handle. I saw a campaign recently where a fashion brand had a T-shirt and a hashtag and had gotten influencers involved. It was something like if you wore the T-shirt and used the hashtag, they would donate money to a cause in Africa. I’m African and that gets me very upset. I come from Ghana, which has an incredible infrastructure of women who make things, who are seamstresses. They’re women you can hire who have incredible skills. So when I see a brand using a hashtag and influencers to sell t-shirts, to give a pittance to women in Africa. It’s like, what the fuck? You can hire those women.
What is the definition of being self-made, according to Dee Poku-Spalding?
Self-made for me is, no one gave me any money. I don’t come from money. When you turn nothing into something, that’s self-made.
Do you have any career regrets, things you could go back and change if you could?
The thing I’d go back and change is to work on the relationship with my boss and my boss’s boss. I’m a worker bee and when I worked at companies I thought it was all it took. That only got me so far. If you don’t have the relationships within your company, if people don’t know who you are, they don’t think of you. So you don’t get the promotions. An example of this: When I was in the movie business, we would go to various film festivals. It’s an incredible time to spend time with the higher-ups in your company because everyone is there. We were at the Cannes Film Festival. As head of marketing it was my job to sort of pull the whole thing together. I had so much to do. I remember I was in an elevator with basically the head of Paramount and the head of Viacom and a major celebrity. They were all going to go out for dinner, and because I was in the elevator they said, “Oh, what are you doing?” And I paused and I said, “I actually have a ton of work to do, so I’m going to go back to the hotel.” And I didn’t go out to dinner with them. I still think of that to this day — what an incredible opportunity! I will never get that opportunity again.
It’s funny that’s the regret you pulled out because basically what you’re doing now is trying to help women tap into the power of a network and build connections.
Right, I’m connecting women. The way I would describe it is I’m giving women the tools and the access to succeed. They’re basically things I wish I had when I was navigating corporate culture. It was never meant to be my job, but I’ve made that my job.
I spent most of my career in the movie industry. As everyone now knows it’s not the easiest industry to navigate, as a woman, as a black woman. It’s also just cutthroat so you really have to have your wits about you. I didn’t have anyone to turn to for advice. I didn’t have mentors and I didn’t have a network. That’s now changed. People have internal networks and they’re members of organizations, but that really wasn’t a thing 10 years ago. So, creating WIE was really my answer to the thing I wish I’d had.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I’m a Virgo, so I’m a real creature of habit. I like my days to run the same. When I wake up in the morning, I try to just have as much time as I can before my son wakes up to just think about my day. You can call it meditation, I guess, but it’s just like having a minute to myself to sit before the crazy hits. Then I look at my to do list and check my phone before my son wakes up. The rest of my morning is dealing with him.
When I get to the office, I start answering emails. I connect with my team. We’re always hosting events so I’m dealing with coordinating who’s coming, who’s not, and troubleshooting. There’s a constant flow of pitching people: potential speakers, hosts, partners, sponsors. I always have a lunch meeting. But I try not to fill my day with too many meetings. I just find that they just overwhelm me. It’s more efficient when you have a call. You get straight to the point.
My day ends at 5 because I want to get back and see my kid. So I go home, spend time with him between 5pm and 7pm and then I go out. I tend to have a lot of evening plans. I think it’s crucial that i go out because all of my relationships come from that. I’m very efficient when it comes to socializing. I have criteria I use to decide what I’m going to do.
What are the criteria?
There are three — well there used to be three. The first is, Am I going to meet people there who will be helpful for what I’m trying to do? The second is, Am I seeing people who are really meaningful for me? I used to have a third criteria which is gone now that I’m married but it was, Will I meet my husband?
I have a couple. I used to take no and rejection very seriously and personally, so the first is: “No just means there’s a better yes coming.” It really is true. Something better always comes along in a different form. My other is, of course, “the key to your success is the power of your network.”