A turn of fate led Allyson Eman to the executive director role at Venture Atlanta over a decade ago. The long-time marketing guru had no prior knowledge of venture capital or tech startups, but she had determination, hustle, and the drive to learn. With a well-placed executive board behind her, she set out to create the premier conference for investment in the country.

The first year the conference had 20 funds and a few hundred attendees from the area. Last year the event topped out at 135 funds and over 900 attendees, not just from Atlanta, but from across the country. 2018 promises to be even bigger.

We sat down with Allyson ahead of this year’s Venture Atlanta conference to hear, in her words, what it means to create an event from scratch and grow it into something that investors, entrepreneurs, tech execs, and more look forward to year after year.

L to R: Philip Lewis, Principal at Fulcrum Equity Partners; Allyson Eman, executive director of Venture Atlanta; Mary-Cathryn Kolb, CEO and founder of brrr°, a fabrics tech company and the first startup to be selected to present at Venture Atlanta 2018; and Bernie Dixon, founder of Launchpad 2X.

What is your favorite thing about Venture Atlanta?

I love talking to everyone and selling Venture Atlanta. When they hired me they had no more than the name of the event and they said, “go build this.” It has given me the flexibility to grow. The best moment was when we sold $200,000 in sponsors, and we’re way past that now. We were at $498,000 last year, with 85 sponsors.

Name the biggest overall lesson you’ve learned.

You can’t give up. And this is the biggest thing: It’s ok for people to say no to you. They’re not telling you that they hate you. People can say no and still be friends. The first time people said no to me, I took it too personally. Now if they don’t want to be a part of what we’re doing, it’s ok. I want everyone to be a part of it, but I understand that it doesn’t fit into their budget or into their plans.

What called you to the conference?

When they say something falls in your lap—this fell in my lap.

I had worked for a mortgage company for ten years, and I was one of the first employees building the marketing department. When I started we had 5 people, and at our largest we were 800 people. Then I transitioned to consulting—not really tied to anything in particular. At that time a friend called me and asked if I was interested in heading up this new conference. I knew nothing about venture capital, nothing about technology. I went into it saying: “Let’s see how it goes.” That was in November 2007, and it has been an amazing learning curve.

In moments of adversity, how do you keep going?

Every year I have a chair or a chairwoman to run the conference with, and that’s always been really good for me. They’re typically a venture capitalist, so I have an advocate and a sounding board to help with anything I’m struggling with. They change every year, and I learn something new from every single one of them.

What makes the conference so unique?

The energy, the passion, and the excitement. We’re really all about connecting people. We work really hard at setting up the apps and we make sure there are plenty of networking events.

Years ago, we had the event and we didn’t facilitate the networking the way we do now. It’s a more productive use of the investors’ time, because they know they’re going to find value. They’re going to get to talk to the entrepreneurs without chasing them around the room.

“I’ve built this conference, and it’s a little different than building a company. Sometimes you listen to the advice and sometimes you go with your gut, because you’re in the trenches.” —Allyson Eman, Executive Director, Venture Atlanta

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting out?

When I first started I was really scared. I was scared to talk to people. I didn’t know about technology or venture capital. A few people sat down with me, and they told me to be confident. The more confident I got, the more I could really sell Venture Atlanta. Now I walk around knowing that this is the best conference in the country, and I have a whole different spin on how to market it.

Favorite success story?

There’s a lot of them, but the most fun one is that Car360 met John Hanger, who became their CEO, at Venture Atlanta. Fast forward a year, and Hanger and Carvana’s CEO Ernie Garcia was a keynote speaker at our event. Car360 had long prospected Carvana, and when they met Garcia, it was an immediate connection. Last month Garcia acquired their company. And the best part is that every aspect of that growth really came from Venture Atlanta.

Venture Atlanta proudly partners with Launchpad2X to advance female entrepreneurship. Venture Atlanta 2018 will be held from October 16 – October 17 at Southern Exchange in Atlanta, Georgia. Visit VentureAtlanta.org for more information or to register.

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