Woman wearing a white suit & white lace blouse

Meet media powerhouse, Dee Poku

Aug 21, 2023

We are thrilled to have Dee Poku-Spalding on The Style That Binds Us podcast. Dee is the Founder and CEO of The WIE Suite which is a private membership community for women leaders, innovators, and creators. She is a Board Director at BAFTA and regularly contributes to Forbes & Huffington Post.

Before starting WIE Suite, Dee worked at Paramount Pictures, Focus Features, and Momentum Pictures as the Head of International Marketing. Will talk about her career, The WIE Suite, the importance of female connection, the state of the workplace as well as the entertainment industry and so much more.

“The world would be a better place if there was less judgment around and a bit more support & love around.”
Dee Poku, Founder and CEO of The WIE Suite
/ Photo Courtesy: The Other Festival

Thank you for being here, Dee.

This is fun, we haven’t even started but it’s already fun.

Oh my gosh, you are a fount of knowledge and have had such an incredible career. We’re excited to jump right in. Will you tell us about the WIE Suite which stands for – Women’s Inspiration and Enterprise? What led you to start it?

A couple of things led to the WIE Suite. First, it was really in my nature. It was always going to come to this because I’ve always been a natural community builder, I love bringing people together, and I love making introductions. I’m happiest when I’m around people, so I essentially turned my passion into my job. 

The second thing is that I spent most of my career in the entertainment industry, it was a very cutthroat industry, not always the most supportive environment to be in. I was often one of very few women, the only black woman in most rooms. I didn’t have that support network around me to help me navigate, what was not a very straightforward environment. 

The WIE Suite
When The WIE Suite started / Photo Courtesy: The WIE Suite

I craved community, and I saw that other women, especially women in leadership positions around me were experiencing the same thing. It was the merging of two things where I was hosting things and bringing women together, then also seeing this need, and so it became my business.

What a gift to other women.

Do you have any thoughts on how to redefine how women achieve success?

When you look at the workplace as a whole, and how it functions, it was very much anchored in or inspired by the way that men operated. Women were somewhat late to the workplace because we were homemakers, we were looking after the kids, we were the caregivers until we fought for the hard-won rights, but we entered a dynamic that was built for men. 

There’s so much still that we need to unpack and unlearn about how workplaces work, to make it more constructive and supportive for women. But certainly, things like flexibility, which the pandemic has accelerated have been a great thing. For women and moms, it is important to have more autonomy.  

What I’m seeing right now is that women don’t necessarily all want the same nine to five cookie cutter job, they have multiple skills and interests. They might want to do a day job, but also pursue other interests, which I’m seeing a lot. We’re polymaths, we want to be on boards, we want to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors, as well as maybe go to a traditional workplace. It’s more about unpacking, and then putting back together the workplace as it exists.

That is a wonderful way to create a vision in your head to say we’re unpacking it, and we’re rearranging it a little bit.

It’s always like when you’re putting together a PowerPoint deck. You like to start with a blank page, and you reimagine rather than looking at what other people have done or following a format, envision a new workplace and some of that is starting to happen.

Yeah, that’s helpful. What do you think is the current state of women in the workplace?

It’s a tricky time. Certain aspects of the workplace that are under attack and aspects of how women – live their lives and our autonomy over our bodies are under attack and impact our ability to do our jobs. Reproductive rights are a huge factor in how we work, the ability to choose when and how to have children is paramount. That’s affecting women in the workplace.

DEI is under attack, it’s twofold. Post George Floyd, most companies saw the significance and importance of having a strong DEI Department and of building truly inclusive workplaces. That’s starting to weigh partly due to the economic environment, but also other forces that are attacking this whole idea of inclusion and prioritizing people who may have had fewer advantages.

“If you’re a woman who happens to be in a position of power, if you manage to make it all the way there, think about how you can leave your workplace changed. As opposed to patting yourself on the back for having made it and then all kudos to you.”

I’m worried about those two things, I’m worried about DEI and I’m worried about reproductive rights. But on the positive side, I would say that the pandemic was also as I mentioned, quite eye-opening. I’m seeing a lot of women, seizing more control of their careers, and being more demanding and more outspoken about how they’re treated, how they’re paid, how much flexibility they have, and so on.

It’s a very interesting time of change right now.

All the things at once.

Dee, do you have any thoughts on reproductive health and DEI? We’re all about action. What are things that we can do? Do you have any advice, since those are two areas of concern for us as well?

We go to speak up, it’s incredibly important. People worry, especially when it comes to workplace-related things about how it might affect their careers. Even speaking out on other issues around race, inclusion, and reproductive rights, people in the corporate environment get worried about how that might impact them to speak out on these issues. But we must be doing this for our daughters, we can’t accept that our daughters will have less autonomy and fewer rights than we have. It’s important to speak up in your workplaces, speak up on your platforms, build coalition, support, and join the organizations that are fighting for these rights. Donate to them, volunteer for them, build your coalition, and use the power that you have, in the ways that you have. Sometimes it’s not as onerous or as complicated as you might think. 

There’s a great story, it’s Mary Callahan Erdoes, who’s a Senior Executive at J.P. Morgan. I remember her telling a story about seeing mothers at her company, surreptitiously leaving the office around 2:30 pm. She was like, “What’s going on?” Then she realized that they were going off to do pickup, but they didn’t want anyone to know, because they didn’t want to be perceived to be less serious about their jobs. 

As women, we’re polymaths, we want to be on boards, we want to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors, as well as maybe go to a traditional workplace. It’s more about unpacking, and then putting back together the workplace as it exists.

She started loudly declaring at two o’clock, “I’m leaving to go to pick up, I’m gonna pick up my kids.” She did that as someone in an executive position to make it clear, not just to the women, but also to the men in the office that this was not only okay, but supported and sanctioned by her. It’s one example of how you use your power in ways that can support the women around you. 

We all have that ability in ways big or small and it’s identifying what that is. Can you be more of an ally to a woman of color in your workplace? Can you speak up when you see something wrong? Women often say, “I didn’t say anything about times when I felt discriminated against, because I was trying to get ahead and trying to build relationships.” So you would let things go, but if I had an ally, who could say, “You know what, that was wrong. That was out of line, I would have appreciated that.” There are lots of ways big and small, where you can use your voice for good.

For those of us who are older, sometimes it takes someone younger to say, “That wasn’t okay that he said that. I’m from a different generation.” But also, I keep hearing that now men are scared to say anything. We need to figure that out and then teach it to all the people in the workplace.

I agree. I wanted to pick up on what you said about men being afraid to say anything. There’s a lot to dig into there, It will be a whole podcast, in itself. There are two things – One, men need to look at the stats, right? What I’ve been hearing a lot of is that younger men don’t know where they stand, or that they have fewer opportunities. It’s simply not true. 

The status quo is still pretty much the status quo. Women are still a fraction of board members, CEOs, Fortune 500 CEOs, and senior leaders, period. Women of color are a fraction of those percentages. Women of color raise .035% of capital. Those stats still exist, there may be a perception because of the general discourse around these issues. For some reason, this perception, there is some zero game, and that is not the case. 

I would say, number one, look at the facts. No one’s taking anyone’s job away. The men who are in positions of power should not take this stance of being afraid to speak up, or not knowing what to say. You have all the power, you hold all the cards, and there is so much impact that you can have by speaking up, especially by speaking up to other men. Because of that sometimes it’s very hard. 

“It’s important to speak up in your workplaces, speak up on your platforms, build coalition, support, and join the organizations that are fighting for these rights. Donate to them, volunteer for them, build your coalition, and use the power that you have, in the ways that you have.”

I’ve spoken at companies where there’s a mixed audience, and I’ve noticed often that the men look like they’re long-suffering and forced to be there, they’re rolling their eyes. Sometimes the message is better received when it comes from another man. I don’t think that there is anything to be afraid of, as far as being alone with a female employee or being a mentor, no one’s coming after you. There’s a very small fraction of wrongful cases when it comes to sexual harassment, it is not the norm. No one’s coming up to you, no one’s going to accuse you of anything. You should use opposition and power for good. 

The final thing I want to say on this is, that there is a crisis amongst teenage boys, and I am the mother of a son. I’m conscious and aware of this. We have to think about how we’re raising our sons, where we’re giving them strength, how we help them know their place in the world, and know their place in a way that is inclusive of all, and not, it’s me or nothing. 

We’re in a complex time. There are issues amongst teenage boys, in particular, where there is a crisis of confidence across the board. That’s something that should be talked about more. 

It’s intense, especially as they’re getting into college too. A lot of that seems to be a tricky time right now, for boys. But it’s interesting because a lot of times it’s women or boys. It’ll be a friend of mine, who has a son, who has just graduated from college. 

She says, “When it’s your son, or when it’s your daughter” Then you’re like, “Well, my son’s not even gonna be able to get a job now, they’re gonna go to all women in finance, and in Manhattan or whatever” These kinds of things. It’s interesting as you watch your son grow, you’re going to have this inside insight into all of that. That’s going to be helpful to other people. Once again, you might be forced to lead the way about that as well.

It’s not true that all the jobs are going to women. As a woman, we have to educate our sons and we have to serve and speak up. Men seem to be in a position to need to do that too, no one’s asking for an unbalanced or unfair workplace. We’re only asking for simple equality and to earn what we’re worth and a fair level playing field.

There’s a movie called, “This Changes Everything” which you’ve maybe seen since it’s about the entertainment industry. But in it, Meryl Streep says, “The modern form of chivalry is for men to be an ally and to lift women.” I loved that tidbit movie. Will you tell us about Black Women Raise and any black-owned businesses that we should have on our radar?

Black Women Raise was created to support black women founders, who as I mentioned earlier, receive a tiny fraction of available investment capital. We start businesses at a faster rate than any other demographic. We innovate in ways that are exciting and that should be supported. But I’ve heard countless stories from friends who couldn’t raise the money they needed to build the businesses they wanted. 

I wanted to do something about that, and so much of how money is raised is through warm relationships, it’s through introductions. It’s very hard to access the powers that be from within the venture community if you don’t have someone who can introduce you. If you didn’t grow up around those networks, or you don’t have an uncle or a friend who can do that for you, then it’s really hard. 

As a community builder, I felt that this was something that I could support because it’s what I’d love to do. I created it to provide a support network for black founders for each other, so we could share our stories, do’s & don’ts, and learnings, and bring in funders and create those connections. It’s a community that connects founders to funders and to potential corporate partners to help them. 

There are three different ones, one is a platform called Sweeten. It’s a tech-enabled platform, where you go to find contractors for your house, and it was founded by a black founder, her name’s Jean Brownhill, that’s one. There’s a platform called Planet FWD. That was also founded by a black founder, her name’s Julia Collins. Planet FWD is focused on building ecosystems that support sustainability. Within it, some snacks were sustainably produced and made – Moonshot Snacks. Then the third one is a platform called Thirteen Lune, a beauty platform founded by Nyakio Grieco. It’s where you go to find black or women-of-color-owned beauty brands.

Wow, that’s so great. I love that. That’s very exciting. Any tips for how women can lift and support the women around them? I know we’ve already been talking about this a little bit. But traditionally sometimes, women felt maybe they were the only Managing Partner, and they weren’t bringing others along with them, because they were so nervous about their position, and there weren’t many positions. But how can women support and lift those around them?

There are a few things. If you’re a woman who happens to be in a position of power, if you manage to make it all the way there, think about how you can leave your workplace changed. As opposed to patting yourself on the back for having made it and then all kudos to you. But how can you leave things to change for the women who are coming up behind you? 

Some of that is your hiring practices, but it’s also, how you change the infrastructure of the space that you’re in. How do you change practices? How do you change language? How do you change behaviors? It’s really important to try and change environments, whenever you notice whether it’s the hiring practices, how things are phrased, or how meetings are structured, what time are the meetings? Are they early in the morning when moms can’t make it? 

What are all the infrastructural ways that you can change the environment you’re in? Also, you have to obviously, can you ensure within hiring practices that you’re bringing up in a new generation? Are you thinking about succession planning like, “Who is my successor?” It isn’t about being the first and the only, it’s about who you can bring along with you.

If you are early on in your career, or at a midpoint in your career, it’s thinking about how you can be more action-oriented. This is a place for all women and in the way that you support other women. Yes, being supportive and being a sounding board is great, but what are the tactical ways that you can support other women? 

Do you make introductions when you hear about great jobs or great opportunities? Are you actively thinking about women around you? Do you buy from women-owned brands? That’s a very straightforward thing that you can do. Are you posting about them at work? Are you an ally? Are you supporting a woman who’s going through a hard time? Navigating the system, like how are you being that support for them? How are you speaking up on their behalf? 

Don’t hold the knowledge, like how are you sharing what you’ve learned? I love students, when I figure out a way to navigate systems or get around obstacles, I love sharing those learnings. Because that’s how we all learn.

“We all have the power, big or small, to make a difference. Find your way. Be an ally to women of color in your workplace. Speak up when you see something wrong.”

I love the word “tactical” because it’s not a word that is often used when you’re talking about women. I love that, that’s a powerful word.

I love transactional. I know some don’t, but it’s incredibly important to be comfortable being transactional. It’s not an either, or. It doesn’t make you a bad person to want something and to ask for it. It’s incumbent on the women in your life to give and support that if they can. Because what is the point otherwise if there is no give and take? To me, that is you do not agree, that is not a true friendship or true allyship.

Do you have any Fundraising tips?

I would say, I am no expert. But based on my own experience, being so prepared that you have done all the work before you begin the process so that you can run a tight machine. By that, get all your lists ready. Who are the people that you’re targeting? Do your research on them. Like, who is the right partner at that VC firm, for you to target? Do they like your business as a company? Who’s going to make the warm intro for you? Will they do it? Getting all of your materials ready, all of your financials in your deck, and making sure that you have everything prepared. 

There are lots of things that I was doing on the go, that I wished I had in the bag so that I could go out there to set up all your meetings and set them up in a very tight timeframe. Because when you go out to investors, some people will say, “Oh, I can meet you in four months”. You need to have a very tight time frame, otherwise, you will be fundraising for the rest of your life. 

Decide, like, “These are the six weeks in which I’m raising money, I’m going to ensure that every meeting is within this time frame.” If you’ve done all the prep, it means that you are ready to hit the ground running and so you can schedule all your meetings back to back and drive momentum. Those are some things.

I was thinking about it, and so many women have said to me, especially black women, that they had to be beyond the best, they had to be over-prepared. That’s what I was thinking when you’re saying that about as a woman, and especially maybe a woman of color, you have to be over-prepared, right?

Being over-prepared, and practicing that pitch until you can deliver it in your sleep is so important. Anticipate every question, which is where you practice with friends and have them ask you lots and lots of questions. So that you can anticipate every possible question that might come your way. 

Try to meet with the people who are a lesser priority for you first so that you can practice before you meet with the people on your top priority list. Practice with the easy ones before you go to the tough ones.

It is. I’ve spoken to a few people and say that they quite enjoy fundraising, because I’m not one, but there’s an art to it. If you’ve done it over and over again, you start to understand how it works. For me the first time, it was really hard. Rejection is really hard and I talk a lot about rejection, but it was very hard to take my advice on that.

Yeah, that’s true. It’s hard, but those are great tips. Any actionable steps you can give our readers to empower other women? This is not even in the workplace, but there’s also this systemic feeling of fear. “If I’m too vocal about that, I’m gonna lose people, or something bad is gonna happen”. Do you have any advice about that?

I would say, generally don’t sit in judgment of other women. That’s the most important thing that we can do. Do you live the life that you want to live? You have your values, and your approach to things, and don’t sit in judgment of other people who may choose to do things differently as long as they’re not harming others. 

Uplift women by celebrating who they are and what they do.

Particularly on social media, I see people weighing in the comments all the time. That wasn’t necessary, disagree. Keep it to yourself, if it’s not your opinion, great. The world would be a better place if there was less judgment around and a bit more support & love around, that’s important – “I tried to forgive, I tried to walk away from harmful situations”. Focus on you and where you’re trying to go, being a great support to other women.

Like what we were taught as children – If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, right? But also, there again, for older sisters to teach younger sisters and for mothers to concentrate on explaining that to their kindergarteners. 

I was a kindergarten teacher, and I remember a little girl saying very quietly to her friend, “If you don’t give me that doll to play with, you’re not coming to my birthday party.” I was like, “I heard that, we had to have a big discussion about that.” It starts early, right? Women can be really powerful with their words, for good or bad. As you said, that’s important. Let other people out and stay away from anything that will bring another woman or girl down at all.

Uplift the women around you by making them feel great about who they are and what they do. I’m a community builder. I love to be around people, I genuinely am interested in who they are, and what they have to say. I like to listen, I want people to feel seen, and what do you want for yourself? How can you live those values?

Let’s talk about your career in the entertainment industry. Will you tell us all about that?

Yeah, sure. I love movies. Pre-child and husband, I had a great friend and we would go to the movies, we would buy one ticket and go to a huge movie theater. This was back in the day when you could navigate between. We would like to see five movies back to back. It was our favorite thing to do, so it’s a big love. 

I loved working in the movie business. I tended to work on more independent films, I worked with directors like Sofia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen brothers, and Ang Lee. It was such an exciting time. In the time that I was in the business, I traveled around the world going to film festivals, in Venice, watching, appreciating, seeing, supporting, and marketing movies. I love that.

Such an exciting career that you get to follow your love of these movies. What are your thoughts on the current state of the entertainment industry and the women working in it? Also, what do we see in the movies?

Unfortunately, the meeting with members was after my time, I did experience some sexual harassment. Nothing that broke me, but it’s those microaggressions that add up. That was my experience, the wrong thing said, a hand placed in the wrong place, and lots of those things. 

I’m glad about the #MeToo Movement, I am seeing a big change in that regard, people are a lot more careful about those things. There’s still a lot more work to be done as far as general equality in the workplace within the film business behind the scenes.

I see great strides being made in television, in terms of women’s showrunners and writers, and especially women of color in leading roles. I’m seeing some change, but not as much in the film business. Many of the award shows are still skewed in the wrong direction, there would certainly not be enough black women directors. 

I can count the number who are getting these bigger firms on maybe one hand. The only way that changes is we need decision-makers within the studios who are diverse and who will make broader choices, who have a worldview that is broader than what currently exists. There are good and bad, but certainly progress since my time and so glad about it. Today, Greta Gerwig broke through a huge barrier and became the first billion-dollar woman director, that’s huge.

It’s about Barbie. The irony of all that.

It’s interesting because Margot Robbie, who took on the rights and became a producer on that film, hired Greta Gerwig. Stood by her, supporting her in her choices, and allowing her to make the film that she wanted to make. 

What she made was quite a subversive film. It wasn’t a sweet and lovely Barbie film, it was a feminist statement about dolls, the workplace, about the equality of the home. It wasn’t about Barbie at all, it was about the world in which women exist. 

Some of how she was able to do that was because she had a very supportive lead actor who controlled the rights to the film, and who stood by her. Having that – speaking of how women can be supportive of one another, having the two of them as a unit, allowed them to tell the story that they wanted to tell and to create a film that spoke to the zeitgeist. That’s why we’re so successful, a Barbie movie wouldn’t have gone.

Right. That’s what I think is fascinating, that people thought it was just going to be a Barbie movie. It is a female empowerment statement, right? Someone like Margot Robbie has a brain, making smart choices, and doing very interesting things, more and more. Maybe there are a few more roles for older women, I think about that a lot at my age. 

I love the women that are making the movies, but sometimes they’re silly. It’s a cliche thing of the older woman going on a trip and all this comes up, which I’m so glad they’re acting. But what I’m saying is, I feel there’s still work to be done.

There is so much work to be done and the only way to make those stories is to make them ourselves. I love that Margot Robbie has her own production company. I love that Gabrielle Union has one, and Reese Witherspoon and Viola Davis – I love what she did with “The Woman King“, what an incredible film she could choose, a black woman director. Unfortunately, these roles are not being handed out and we have to create them and make them for ourselves for the moment.

That takes a few really brave women and then they can bring others along with them. They may bring others along with them and there’s power in numbers. Well, let’s talk a little bit more about The WIE Suite.

Yes please, what is it? How can people get involved in all of that?

The WIE Suite is a membership community for women. Again, it was inspired by my own experiences. What we do well is that we create a space where women can ask and where they can get answers. 

It’s incredibly important to be comfortable being transactional. It’s not an either, or. It doesn’t make you a bad person to want something and to ask for it.

It’s a very tactical, transactional, supportive environment, where women are peer coaching and supporting one another’s careers. They are sharing tactics and making introductions, they’re writing checks. They’re doing what men have been doing for each other, for as long as we can remember, and that we need to do more of. Like, how do we use our power & position and to help other women succeed? 

When you join, you can get your advisory boards, you get put in a group of eight women and you meet with them once a month, and you work with each other on your goals. We do masterclasses, we host amazing dinners, we do retreats, and it’s a thoroughly active supportive space where women are getting real results for themselves. That makes me happy.

Oh, yeah. It’s not just for female entrepreneurs, right? It’s for women in business.

It’s for women in business. It’s for both founders and executives, you go to the website thewiesuite.com, apply, and it gets reviewed.

That’s great. I was trying to think of any other questions that someone might ask, but they can get the answers at the website.

It’s for women who are in more senior roles. There are lots of other communities out there for up-and-coming women, but this is definitely for women who are more established.

Can you sign up for newsletters or anything like that?

Anyone can sign up for the newsletter. One of the things that we wanted to do was, even though the community is for women at a certain place in their career, we still want to ensure that we are supporting all women, and there are so many great insights that come out of the community that we share in our newsletters. It’s also worth signing up on the same website and you’ll get all the great tactics that you can apply to your career until you’re ready to apply to The WIE Suite. Definitely do that.

Okay Dee, where can people find you? How can they support you?

On social media, I’m on Instagram and LinkedIn, just my name, so follow me there. I’m also always sharing great things that I’m learning along the way through my relationships and the spaces I’m in. Come follow and be a part of my community too.

“We’re only asking for simple equality and to earn what we’re worth and a fair level playing field.”

Yes, thank you for coming on. This was such an informative, wonderful episode.

I very much enjoyed it. I love that this is a mother-daughter show.

Thank you. It’s nice to have different generational insights.

Yes, exactly. It’s incredibly important that we have this intergenerational connection. The generations have gone before us, and you have so many learnings to share, generations who are coming up have a completely different approach and viewpoints, and sharing on both sides makes us all stronger for sure.

I agree. The weird thing is right now, I feel like my age group, the moms are learning so much from the daughters. Especially if the daughters do like to keep asking you, “I don’t understand why you can’t do that.” “I don’t understand why”, all these things, your head’s spinning. It’s a lot of unlearning and relearning. But anyway, we could talk all day. Thanks again so much for being on. We’d love what you’re doing, and we hope to see you soon.

Thank you so much, guys.

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About The Guest

Dee Poku-Spalding is a social entrepreneur who has always believed in the power of content and community to make a difference. Born in the UK, she grew up between London and Accra (Ghana) and currently resides in New York City. She has dedicated her life to being an advocate and champion for women in the workplace.

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