California dreamin’, Xmas countdown & rockstar entrepreneurs

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I have just spent a week in California at the EY Strategic Growth Forum in Palm Desert. Of all the conversations I had, the most thought-provoking were with the Global Women in Business Advisory Council about fostering girl-power in the business world. Lili Hall of Knock Marketing said it is time for women to change the conversation and become bolder: if they fancy a spot on the board they need to ask and take the appropriate steps to make it happen, in the same way that men do. That means more networking, something that Maria Pinelli, EY Global Vice Chair of Strategic Growth Markets champions.

She talked about keeping the ladders down: “Women need to support and invest in each other in many ways – networks, role models, advocates, actual capital funding for those starting out”.

And, Deborah Soon, Senior VP at Catalyst added that it turns out that one woman on the board usually leads to more, debunking the myth that “women step on other women’s eyeballs to get to the top”. All of the women I spoke to were pretty formidable and have worked hard to achieve their goals – on their “A-game”, according to Quaker Partner’s Adele Oliva. For those on the sidelines the message is clear – don’t be intimidated, be inspired and follow their leads.

Conferences like this are incredibly absorbing and it is easy for a day of panel discussions and keynotes whizz by without ever having a minute to check the news headlines and keep up with the outside world. So when I wasn’t interviewing and being wowed by entrepreneurs (serial or otherwise) and investors (niche or otherwise), I turned on the TV to acclimatize. Goodness me they have so many ad breaks. Now, I’m no grinch, but it also felt like Christmas was being heralded in sooner than usual. Was it the blue skies, warm weather and palm trees that threw me, because it was the second week in November, so perhaps not entirely unreasonable?

Actually no. It turns that this year, more than ever, Christmas is what the US retail sector has been waiting for. Take Wal-Mart, the world’s second largest corporation, who lowered its full year outlook after posting poorer than expected sales. And electronics firm Bestbuy says they are struggling to keep up with discounts being offered by competitors. So they havestarted early. Traditionally, the holiday shopping season kicks off on Black Friday – the Friday after Thanksgiving day. But Walmart’s campaign to lure shoppers has already begun, with a promotion on a 32-inch flat-screen TV for only $98 (£61). They will price-match competitors’ best deals a week early too. Duncan Mac Naughton, chief merchandising and marketing officer, said “Black Friday is our Super Bowl, and we plan to win.”

On my stocking-filler shopping list are Justin’s Peanut Butter Cups, and Sweaty Bands. After interviewing their CEOs last week, I can only agree with’s Michael Fertik who says right now is a “rock-star” moment for entrepreneurs. Not only are there loads of great ideas buzzing around, but there is capital out there to invest in those ideas to help them become them exciting and viable businesses. Justin Gold and Donna Browing’s ideas both started at their kitchen tables. Justin Gold ground his own nut butter for a healthy unsweetened energy snack and hit on a recipe that his room-mates couldn’t get enough of. Several rounds of farmers markets and focus groups later and his eponymous nut butter is stocked in stores nationwide and online. I was particularly tickled by his scheme to nurture his team. Each year they get a cash bonus with a twist: they have to spend it on something fun, like new skis or a yoga retreat. Beat that for a way to keep staff happy, motivated and loyal.

Fitness instructor Donna Browning created Sweaty Bands when couldn’t find a hairband that would stay put during her workouts. She set to work with a borrowed sewing machine and a handful of elastic and ribbon and now has a burgeoning business and a deal with Nordstrom department stores. I loved that she wore her Sweaty Bands every day of the conference (dresscode: business attire), the consummate ambassador for her brand.  I predict she’ll import her accessories success story to Europe soon.

Meanwhile, well done to overall winner of the US Entrepreneur of the Year contest, Hamid Moghadam, CEO and Chairman of Prologis – the world’s largest owner, developer and operator of industrial logistics real estate. We’ve all heard the one about success in the property market being all about location, location, location, but this entrepreneur says timing it right is as important too. And that how Moghadam steered the firm through three decades of tricky economic times, anticipating trends like the collapse of the office building market in the late 1980s and then redirecting investments to focus on industrial parks and shopping malls. He said “I won’t pat myself on the back for being smarter than other guys. We acted on what we saw…. it’s not just the ability to see trends, but the courage to do something about it. Many people, when faced with evidence that doesn’t fit their thesis, stick their head in the sand.” A man of action then, as well as words.

See you in Monaco in June, Mr. Moghadam for the World Entrepreneur of the Year finals.