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(Dell’s Official Flickr Page/Canadian Entrepreneurs visit the Taj Mahal (from left to right): Andrea Lown – founder, SmartBrideBoutique.com; Sarah Prevette)
(Dell’s Official Flickr Page/Canadian Entrepreneurs visit the Taj Mahal (from left to right): Andrea Lown – founder, SmartBrideBoutique.com; Sarah Prevette)

Guest column

How to get the most out of your next conference Add to ...

This June, 149 female entrepreneurs from 16 countries braved sweltering 45 degrees Celsius heat in New Delhi, India for the third annual Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network Conference (DWEN). When I told friends and family I was attending the invite-only event, most asked, “Why would you ever go to India in June?”

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After two overnight flights and a week of sweating my way through India, I could understand their incredulous responses. But after experiencing the unique networking and development opportunities for entrepreneurs that result from bonding in a far away land, I wouldn’t hesitate to go again, even if it means Russia in December.

Like many conferences, DWEN brings together powerful and inspiring entrepreneurs across industries with investors and business advisers. But the value with this particular event is combining these ingredients with an exotic destination, elements of local culture and group adventures to famed sites like the Taj Mahal, for example. This environment creates a once-in-a-lifetime, shared experience that cultivates friendships and business relationships at lightning speed.

Realizing that not every entrepreneur can spare the time or expense for an event like DWEN, here are three things I believe will help you get the most out of your next conference:

Be inspired and re-energized

The ebbs and flows of day-to-day business are magnified in small businesses and startups. Take a close look at the speaker and topic list to identify opportunities for inspiration or new perspectives to look at your business in a different light.

For almost a year, Toronto-based Lynne McEachern has been working towards the launch of her new product, SPOKEnPHOTO . She admits that being an entrepreneur can “be isolating, even lonely at times especially when you come from a small team that works remotely.” Attending the conference injected her with energy to push through to her product launch and resulted in many new connections (all within her target demographic) armed with their own powerful networks.

Expand your network and create new business opportunities

When choosing an event, do your research to determine the type and calibre of attendees you’ll be networking with and whether the format of the conference allows for multiple meaningful connections. Invite-only events tend to result in a curated attendee list, which means better networking opportunities.

One of the most inspiring sessions at DWEN this year was the candid interview with Sprouter.com’s Sarah Prevette. She told the story of making the decision to shut down her business, only to have it revived through acquisition the following week. “You'd be hard-pressed to find a founder who isn't battle scarred,” says Ms. Prevette. “It's somewhat relieving to know that others are in the same fight and to know that you can persevere despite overwhelming adversity.”

When asked how business is going, many entrepreneurs put on a brave face and relay only the high notes. Ms. Prevette’s interview seemed to open the door for honest communication between attendees. “An amazing number of people reached out to share their own stories and personal struggles in staying positive through it all,” she said after her interview.

Share expertise and give back

You’ve probably attended a large conference session where keen participants disguise comments as questions in an attempt to show off their knowledge or build their profile. This generally results in several eye-rolls throughout the audience and a clever deflection from the speaker.

Creating meaningful connections is much easier in smaller sessions where your fellow attendees can understand your business but also your specific skill set and expertise. Conferences with a combination of speakers, panels, workshops and planned networking periods tend to provide excellent opportunities to share knowledge and give back to the network you are looking to for help.

On the second day of DWEN, I participated in a smaller workshop with 20 other entrepreneurs. I was tasked with submitting a list of specific needs for my business, SmartBrideBoutique.com, along with an offer I could make to another business. In reviewing these as a group, we quickly made connections to help move our businesses forward in a specific and tangible way. It also exposed a room full of people to my areas of expertise and critical thinking skills, which fueled conversations and sparked new connections after the session.

I recommend choosing conferences and events that take you out of your comfort zone. Between braving the extreme heat, tempting fate eating street food in the Chandni Chowk market and flying kites from the rooftop of a haveli with like-minded entrepreneurs, my new connections and I have an abundance of vivid memories to draw on as we build longer-term relationships.

Andrea Lown is the founder of SmartBrideBoutique.com, a niche classifieds website where brides can buy and sell all things wedding. SmartBrideBoutique.com was launched in September, 2008 and helps brides create the wedding day of their dreams on a realistic budget without sacrificing designer style.

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