WIN's Founding Story

Behind every bold vision are the women bringing it to life.

At WIN, that’s our founders Maria and Alfia alongside our dedicated team. They met co-leading strategic projects for big name clients like Prudential, Marriott, and Nestle and now they’re working to advance women in the field of innovation to lead on their own terms.

In their own words, here’s what makes WIN work.


WIN’s Mission for Change

Maria: From the very start, at its core, WIN has been and continues to be about advancing women in the field of innovation into positions of leadership by giving them actionable tools, resources, and a generous community that has their back.

Alfia: Exactly. According to a study WIN conducted in October 2017, 79 percent of innovation firms are led by men, 85 percent of the top-selling innovation books on Amazon are written by men, and only 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women (and that number isn’t much better when you look at Chief Innovation Officers). Innovation is a fast-growing field and there is a critical need to amplify the participation of women. WIN is our solution.  

The WIN Impact

Alfia: Since 2016, WIN has touched over 2,500 women across the world. We have produced over 40 events, partnered with over 50 companies, and been invited to speak at numerous industry and academia events. Our community grew by 326 percent just in 2017. Based on our 2018 impact survey, over 26 percent of our members attribute a recent promotion to WIN. 49 percent of WIN members say that WIN has helped them perform better at work and put them on a positive career trajectory.

Maria: People are always shocked to learn that we’ve created and scaled a non-profit organization with a global reach over weekends and in the evenings, early mornings, and on lunch breaks. Both Alfia and I have thriving, but demanding full time jobs – I build the next generation of financial products at Citi, and Alfia is a Managing Director at R/GA, a full service digital agency. Thankfully, we now have a 30-person team across three time zones and a fairly mature operational model. Alfia and I may have started WIN, but it won’t be us who will run it forever. My core belief is that incredible things happen when we get out of the way and give our teams deep autonomy. One of our key short-term goals is to further professionalize WIN by hiring a full-time dedicated team.

Alfia: Once we started bringing our team together, their generosity and openness in sharing knowledge and resources just made magic happen. Going forward, we want to recruit an Executive Director and build out the Board. All our efforts, like streamlining operations, are focused on helping take WIN to its next phase of growth. This includes better programming at scale and measuring our impact with sophisticated tools and systems.


How WIN Makes It Happen

Maria: WIN started because we began seeing the gender gap in our industry everywhere: at industry conferences, in academia, and in key conversations about the evolution of our industry. Where were the women? Alfia and I want women to be part of key decisions when it comes to designing the future of companies. We want women to create profound thought leadership that resonates and drives industry discourse. We envision a future where different points of view are fully represented across the entire value chain of innovation.

Alfia: To that end, there are three ways we actualize WIN’s mission to close the gender gap in innovation and drive systematic change in the industry:

Bottom-up change.

We host monthly events for our members led by recognized innovation experts from Fortune 500 and innovation firms (e.g. Conde Nast, Quartz, Mercedes, Frog, IDEO, What If Innovation, Fahrenheit 212, and R/GA), and in partnership with with leading innovation consultancies, brands, and scholars. Each event focuses on a current challenge in innovation through workshops, keynote speeches, and member dinners.

Top-down change.

WIN Salons, invite-only intimate gatherings of great minds (women in C-suite and other leadership roles) offer the chance to speak out about critical issues such as diversity and inclusion, sponsorship and mentorship, and to amplify underrepresented voices.

Peer-to-Peer change.

A mentorship program that spans all professional levels and pairs women in equivalent positions, turning the systemically competitive innovation environment into a safe, collaborative space to come together and help one another rise.


What Inspired WIN’s Co-Founders

Alfia: When I was pregnant with my first child Adriana, I wanted to build a library of books about innovation for her. As I was lining them up on a shelf, I realized all 12 books I had chosen were written by men. That made the gender gap feel very real. How could I inspire my daughter to become an innovator when I could not point her to a single female role model?

Maria: For me, it was a slowly growing awareness. There were moments when my ideas weren’t heard or were appropriated by others. Moments when I felt like I should be taking ownership but struggled to take the lead. Moments of frustration with male leaders and male colleagues. Moments of asking myself, am I crazy or did that just happen? Situations that felt layered with sexist undertones. It made me feel frustrated and rebellious. Alfia and I wanted to channel that energy into a proactive and positive solution to these issues.

Alfia: I come with a background in finance and diplomacy, and Maria is a social anthropologist by training. Our lives crossed paths at Fahrenheit 212, a global innovation strategy and design firm, where we quickly discovered our shared passion for meaningful work and relationships while trying to solve mission-critical challenges for our clients. But we also discovered an evident problem in our industry – women were an underserved segment in the market and an underrepresented voice in executive decision-making. Through our WIN experience, we learned the power of a strong partnership based on complementary skills. Maria and I are each other’s daily ying and yang and help each other round out our diverse perspectives.  While I draw inspiration from analytics and data, Maria is gut-driven and looks at human behaviors and shifting cultural paradigms.

Maria: Working together closely for so many years, we have also come to appreciate each other’s distinct styles. I go to silent retreats and hike tall mountains with my toddler. Alfia goes to Tony Robbins and interfaith seminars. I cook by improvisation, Alfia bakes by chemistry. I go to bed at 10pm, Alfia at 1am. Ultimately, both of us are motivated to catalyze positive impact with others who share same core beliefs. That’s the WIN model in a nutshell – by enabling each other to rise, we all rise.

Written by Maria Potoroczyn and Alfia Ilicheva

Photos by Katie Burwick

WIN: Women in Innovation Copyright (c) 2019 All rights reserved. This blog post may not be reproduced or repurposed without written permission from WIN: Women in Innovation (501(c)3). This blog post is provided for your personal use only.

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