News Column

Michelle Patterson rescued the California Women's Conference -- twice

May 19, 2014

By Anne Valdespino, The Orange County Register

May 19--Michelle Patterson faced the greatest financial crisis of her life. But she was determined not to cause her husband, Eric, any worry, so she quietly went to bed.

Still, the bad news swirled in her subconscious, and he found out anyway. "I'm tossing and turning and having nightmares and finally I kick him in my sleep. He turns on the light and says, 'What is going on with you?'"

Patterson admitted she had to raise $1.4 million in 16 days or as president and CEO of the California Women's Conference she would be forced to announce its demise. His response floored her. "He said, 'Michelle I've been married to you for 15 years and I've watched you pull stuff out of your (hat). You're going to be fine.'"

She thought, is he not listening to me? He's the Senior Finance Manager of Western Digital and I'm $1.4 million in the hole. Isn't that a total crackup?

Earlier that day, she had met with Steve Goodling, president and CEO at the Long Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, and gotten what she considered an even wilder reaction.

She told Goodling she needed to raise $1.8 million to put on the annual event, which brings to Long Beach thousands of attendees, hundreds of exhibit booths and guest speakers, a wealth of resources and information for women.

"Michelle, what's your favorite ice cream?" Goodling asked.

Strawberry ice cream was scooped and the scene became surreal. "So we're all sitting there like little kids, and it was almost like we're playing Monopoly. We looked at each of the invoices."

By the end of the meeting, they'd figure out to reduce the total by $400,000.

She remembers thinking, "'What is the deal with the men in my life? Strawberry ice cream? 'You're going to be fine'? It was hilarious."

But Patterson, who lives in Ladera Ranch, learned a valuable lesson. To be strong, a woman needs to surround herself with supportive family and friends. The 44-year-old mother of two teens knew that these men believed in her and though she faced an impossible task, each believed she could do it.

But Patterson wasn't sure.

Paterson had already revived the conference once, and now the pressure was really on. She had to come up with the cash because she didn't want to be the person who ended its nearly three-decade legacy.

I will survive

In 1985, then-Gov. George Deukmejian started the conference after becoming alarmed at the high failure rate of female-owned businesses in California.

Deukmejian was one of Patterson's idols. She had met him in Northern California when she was 12 and he granted her an interview for Farm Elementary's school paper in San Diego.

"He inspired me," she said. "He was the first person outside my home who made me feel like I mattered." Deukmejian so impressed her that she majored in political science at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, where she was elected student body president her junior year.

In 2012, when Gov. Jerry Brown canceled the California Women's Conference due to the state budget crisis, Patterson rode to the rescue. She could not let it die after Maria Shriver had built it into a star-studded event with appearances by Oprah and the Dalai Lama -- an event that championed women entrepreneurs and addressed local and global issues.

Patterson had owned a multimillion-dollar recruiting business and produced events such as Taste of Ladera, Uncorked!, a wine festival, and Muscle Car 1000. She believed she was a perfect fit to save the annual conference.

With encouragement from Orange County Supervisor Pat Bates, Patterson reconnected with Deukmejian to tell him her plans. "We both were in tears reminiscing about the impact we all can make on someone's life, even someone you meet for 15 minutes."

She bought the URL, californiawomensconference.com, and got to work.

Girl on fire

Patterson envisioned the entire conference, hired a highly recommended team to fundraise and find sponsors, booked 350 speakers, reserved hotel rooms and arranged for Helen Reddy to accept an award and sing "I Am Woman."

Patterson felt her whole life had been leading to this moment -- until she asked her fundraising team to pay the first bills.

Awe and shock.

The team that promised it could raise $7 million had come up with only $100,000. It was 17 days until the event.

"They were afraid to tell me," she said during an interview in her office at her 5,000-square-foot Ladera Ranch home. She learned a hard lesson in communications between the sexes. "It was a group of guys who weren't capturing the essence of what we were doing."

Her mind raced. Still, she refused to cancel anything. She kept her scheduled television appearance on Fox News. "While we were doing the segment, I ended up selling more tickets. My dad says I could sell yellow snow."

She kept shouting to the world that the conference was "absolutely happening" but inside she was shaking. At the time she thought, "I'm an expert at this. I've put on events with 20,000 to 25,000 people. I should not be in this situation."

She decided to woman up and not make the mistake the sponsorship team had made: "I had to check my ego and ask for help."

The day after her nightmares, Patterson steeled herself, looked in the mirror and said, "Good morning, fundraiser! You can do this!" She started calling everyone she had ever met, dialing for dollars. "It was the most exhilarating, embarrassing, overwhelming, thrilling experience."

She took it one day at a time. The Convention Center worked with her. Luxuries such as expensive linens were trimmed. Vendors offered to donate services. "We were making tough decisions but saying, 'How can we still have the event?'"

And she raised funds like crazy: "Nobody said, 'No.'"

Hear me roar

As she endured possibly the toughest two weeks of her life, Patterson somehow squeezed out the cash.

In retrospect, she wouldn't have missed the challenge.

Most women aren't accustomed to playing in the million-dollar range, but they shouldn't be afraid to, especially when they firmly believe in what they're doing, she explains. "The ask became very, very easy."

Patterson scaled back last year, presenting a series of smaller events in California, Oregon and Costa Rica. But since then, the 29th California Women's Conference, the signature fundraising event for the nonprofit Global Women Foundation, has gained momentum and has returned to its former scale. Today and Tuesday it is expected to draw 10,000 attendees to hear presentations by notables ranging from Rosie Perez to Arianna Huffington speaking on women's issues, personal health and business. The Register is among its sponsors.

Patterson's six-person core team works full time, year round, at offices in her home. Come conference time, her list of helpers expands to an army of 1,000, including contractors, volunteers and representatives of women's groups and charities from all over the world.

When doors open today, participants will shop, sip cocktails at mixers, be serenaded at concerts and browse 300 exhibit booths.

Fifty charitable organizations will participate during two days of breakout sessions, panel discussions and speakers. And it's oh-so digital.

Many sessions will be presented as TED talks in 18 minutes or less and will be streamed on the website, which also hosts Women Network, the producer of the conference and forum for women entrepreneurs.

She calls it the world's biggest business party and invites everyone -- even men. It's a typical Patterson pitch, nearly impossible to refuse.

"We have jumped up to 17 percent men this year. I think men are figuring out that they want to understand and support brands communicating to women," she said. "Women are 78 percent of consumers and they make 85 percent of the decisions in the household.

"Why would you not be there?"

Contact the writer: avaldespino@ocregister.com

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(c)2014 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

Visit The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) at www.ocregister.com

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Source: Orange County Register (CA)


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