On with the Show
In 1984, a 12-year-old girl conducted an interview for her school newspaper with the governor of California. Neither the girl nor the governor had any way of knowing that 28 years later she would be the one to have the vision and courage to breathe new life into a pioneering program that this governor and his wife were, at that time, planning to kick off.
The girl—Michelle Nadeau, now Michelle Patterson. The governor—George Deukmejian. The program—The California Governor and First Lady’s Conference on Women, which now under Patterson’s direction has been pointedly renamed The California Women’s Conference.
The story of how these separate players crossed paths once and then intersected again nearly three decades later, while not quite the stuff of a Twilight Zone episode, is a worthy tale of how foresight, hindsight and chance can combine to opportunely carry on a legacy.
An Inspirational Audition
Patterson’s take away from her first meeting with Gov. Deukmejian was reinforced confidence and a direction of sorts.
“When I was done with the interview,” recalls Patterson, “I thought to myself, ‘I could be governor when I grow up.’”
Her political aspirations were met with early success as she was elected to various offices at her high school in San Diego, culminating with student body president. Along the way, she discovered an innate talent for organizing people for a common cause by reaching across the aisle, which in high school meant befriending fellow students regardless of their ordained subgroup affiliations.
Patterson also showed a real flair for promotion. For her presidential campaign, she had 40 costumes made that resembled boxes of M&M’s, only these said M&N’s, her initials. Her plan to have students wear the costumes while roaming the campus wasn’t an instant success, but eventually became somewhat of a “craze” according to Patterson.
“Everyone wanted to wear these boxes,” she states somewhat in amazement.
Patterson’s marketing acuity and her inclusive ways would prove invaluable as this married mother of two eventually turned her role as the organizer of a small community event into a multi-million dollar event planning company, which is now set to present the largest women’s conference in the country.
Back in 1985, the objective of the original conference was to address the staggering failure rate of women-owned businesses. The title of this year’s gathering, “The Women’s Economy Starts Here!”, underlines the conference’s continued efforts to provide women entrepreneurs with necessary resources. Patterson’s extensive career as a businesswoman and entrepreneur makes her well-suited to direct this venture.
Patterson attended Loyola Marymount University where she embarked upon another successful campaign by becoming the first junior ever to be elected as the college’s student body president.
Following graduation, she went to work for Robert Half International, the world’s largest specialized staffing firm. Patterson rose to the position of Regional Vice President while the company increased revenue ten times over.
After 13 years, she decided to leave the company for reasons that included taking a break from all the travel.
“I was making great money,” remembers Patterson, “but I felt that I didn’t have any more creativity opportunities and I got to the point where I really needed to start my own company.”
Since she had a two-year non-compete clause with Robert Half, Patterson first accepted a lead role with New Century Mortgage. At the end of two years, she moved on and founded TouchPointe Solutions, a staffing and recruiting firm.
“By the end of the first six months, we were a seven figure company,” Patterson says. “We hit a home run.”
A few years earlier, Patterson had taken on a side project that by now had grown into something much larger. Christened “Taste of Ladera”, it provided an opportunity for the residents of the city of Ladera Ranch to experience the offerings of local establishments and to be entertained by local musicians.
“It started off that me and my neighbors were going to have a festival,” explains Patterson. “We wanted to start up something in the community. I created it, organized it, brought in a board and set everybody up. The running joke was that if you talked to me for more than six minutes, you’d be signed up for a committee or two.”
Patterson’s talent at bringing people together was again on full display.
“The first year the attendance was four thousand,” she relates. “The next year was eight thousand. It went from 8 to 12. Then it jumped to 20 thousand. It got to the point where we had three separate stages and were using shuttle buses. The California Restaurant Association named us the best run event of its kind.”
Patterson also started to include charities into the mix and there was no shortage of willing participants.
“My board felt that I needed to start saying no, but my feeling was that there is a spot for everybody,” says Patterson. “Let’s create a platform that gives these charities an opportunity to increase volunteerism, fundraising and awareness.”
And it worked. Charitable organizations would report that they made more money from their presence at Taste of Ladera than from their own galas. Attendance eventually neared 30 thousand.
In Taste of Ladera’s seventh year, Patterson’s husband, Eric (who is the Controller at Western Digital, a major technology manufacturer based in Irvine, CA) encouraged her to parlay her event planning experience into a business. Patterson took him up on it by creating Event Complete and then started taking on other events such as Muscle Car 1000, a road rally and showcase of preeminent collector cars.
A Rehearsal of Fortune
The conference that Gov. Deukmejian and his wife Gloria instituted in 1985 continued to be held annually for 26 years, hosted by California’s first ladies. However, it was discontinued in 2010 and there were no plans to renew it in 2011. That’s when Patterson got interested.
“That was an event that should never have gone away,” she states.
Due to the event’s scale, there were trade-offs to consider.
“We knew that if we went in and did this event,” says Patterson, “it would mean having to say no to several other events.”
Unfortunately, there were financial risks. Unlike the previous conferences that included public funding, this one might have to be funded entirely with private money. However, that didn’t deter Patterson. She sold a percentage of her company to an investor to jump start the process and didn’t look back.
“It was the right answer,” says Patterson. “When it was apparent that it was not going to happen for the second year in a row, we said let’s continue the legacy of providing resources and tools for women. And now it was truly the community that would be putting it on.”
The Curtain Rises
The California Women’s Conference was launched; it will be held this year on September 23rd and 24th at the Long Beach Convention Center where it had been held the previous ten years. It is being billed as a marketplace of ideas, exhibits and internationally known speakers and personalities that include Gloria Allred, Marcia Cross, Donna Karan, Mark Victor Hansen, Tippi Hedren, Patricia Arquette, Dr. John Gray and Janet Evans.
Highlights include the Dolphin Tank, a showcase for women-led companies, which will give them the opportunity to interact with venture capital groups, banks and other investors. This segment is being produced by Springboard Enterprises, a non-profit organization that has assisted women-owned businesses with over $5 billion in funding. Taking inspiration from the community feel of “Taste of Ladera”, Patterson designed the exhibit hall floor to resemble streets extending out from an oak tree (not a typical oak tree mind you); this one will allow participants to directly interact with it through a mobile app.
Patterson also placed high priority on the inclusion of charitable causes.
“I used the same business model that I had with Taste of Ladera,” she says. “That is to create awareness, increase volunteerism and help them with fundraising efforts. We gave all of our charities links and if you buy tickets through them then 20 percent goes back to those charities.”
The theme for this year’s conference, The Women’s Economy Starts Here!, conveys the vast impact that women now have on our economic landscape. For instance, women are opening up businesses twice as fast as men.
In spite of its theme, the conference is designed to appeal to all women, with panels whose titles include: “A Mother’s Expectations”, “Better Health and Beauty from the Inside Out”, “Military Women” and “Doctors, Drugs and Gynecological Surgery…Oh My”. Patterson estimates that attendance will reach 25 thousand.
“It really appeals to women of all different backgrounds,” she says. “There is something for everyone.”
Also, in case you were wondering, men are invited too.
Patterson explains, “This is about men and women coming together as a community to be able to provide resources for women. So it’s a collective effort. It’s definitely the power of we.”
The men who have supported Patterson in this endeavor (besides her father, husband and son) include former Governor Deukmejian and current Governor Jerry Brown.
Patterson hopes to expand the conference by bringing it to other locations throughout the year and making it an international event; however, this begs the question, “Is this conference now a full-time job?”
Laughing, she says, “it’s more than full-time—it’s full-time and a half.”
A Curtain Call
So how does this married mother of a 13-year-old and a 14-year-old manage it?
“I often get asked, ‘can women have it all?’” says Patterson. “Yes they can, but your all is different from my all. For me, it was creating a multi-million dollar business from my home. I decided that I wanted to be home, so I created that environment. It’s not only feasible, it’s conducive to today’s market.
As for maintaining the balance of family and work, Patterson relates lessons learned from her parents.
“One of the things that I am constantly working on is being present. When I’m home, I’m home. I learned this from my father. When he was home, I always had his attention. And from my mom I learned that when you’re feeling overwhelmed, stop what you are doing and go do something for yourself. I think as women, we’re running so hard that we will put ourselves last. Take that time to reflect and that is when clarity comes.”
However, Patterson knows firsthand that not every business decision meets with immediate success and that perseverance is crucial.
“Failure really translates into opportunity,” she says. “What can I learn from this? How can I grow from this? I can attribute two of my biggest failures to leading to my biggest successes. So when failure hits, look at it as ‘What is it about this that I can tweak?’ Sometimes it is just the littlest tweak that makes all the difference in the world.”
To continue to be able to make a difference herself, Patterson relies on fundamentals.
“An important piece is keeping your goals in front of you. Look at what those goals are and are they in alignment with your vision. My dreams and goals are going to be entirely different from others. So I encourage people to create their own visions and become a visionary for their own goals. If you can see it and visualize it, you put it into action.”
Michelle Patterson’s bold action, when presented with the opportunity to revitalize a legacy, demonstrates the foresight (inspired in this case a bit by hindsight) needed to fulfill a vision.
As for becoming governor, we’ll have to wait to see how that story unfolds.
By Mike Dahl
Photos by Don Haynes