Entrepreneur Ana File-Heather looks back on her IVLP experience

Entrepreneur Ana File-Heather looks back on her IVLP experience. Photo credit: Ana.

Between September 7 – September 27, Ana File-Heather took part in the International Visitor Leadership Program’s Women and Entrepreneurship exchange.  Ana is from Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, and is very active in her community as both a volunteer and local business operator.  You can check out her profile on our Pacific Women Leader’s Blog here.  We are delighted that she has offered to share her experience on the trip she took in September.


So this happened.  I spent most of September travelling to different cities throughout the United States of America on the U.S. Embassy International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).

The theme of my program was Women and Entrepreneurship and, alongside 23 other women from 23 nations, my empowering journey began 7 September in Wash days in DC, our group ‘roadtripped’ to New York City, the city that doesn’t sleep. And neither did we! We had two fantastic meetings there and then our groupington DC.

This was the beginning where we all started to meet and introduce ourselves to each other awkwardly, unsure of what to expect. Being the only one from the Pacific Islands was daunting for me but I was keen for the challenge.

After 4 days in DC, our group ‘roadtripped’ to New York City, the city that doesn’t sleep. And neither did we! We had two fantastic meetings there and then our group of 24 split into teams of 6 and we embarked on our ‘city splits’. The options for city splits were, Greensboro, Indianapolis, Dallas or New Orleans. I was assigned to New Orleans (which I was secretly hoping for).

The team all reconnected in Kansas City in time for the Kansas City Tech start-up weekend and we finished off in the art mecca Miami.

There were several highlights and key learning opportunities for me on this journey.  Firstly, I really recognised and embraced my inner passion as an entrepreneur. Until this point I was struggling with the fact that I wanted to create several businesses and would try my best to hone-in my thoughts and focus on my current (but ever evolving) business. I was able to realise my passion of supporting women in business.

Over the 21 days on this program, we experienced 26 meetings including a Start- Up Conference, across 5 cities. I have highlighted key meetings that stood out for me:

Washington DC

Washington DC was the absolute perfect place to begin this program.  For any visitor to the U.S., DC provides a really rich historical base about how America was built and developed. We were fortunate enough to have a lecture at George Mason University with Professor Dr. Jeremy Mayer who provided a wonderfully insightful understanding into the political structure and federalism of the U.S. and its states and the role of the federal government and the vast differences between each state. For anyone who thinks political science would be a horribly dull lecture to take, you must meet Dr. Mayer. His wit and candid approach to the presentation was very enjoyable.

One of the final meetings in our DC experience was with Kathy Korman Frey, a professor and Founder of the Hot Mommas Project, which is the world’s largest case study library used to teach and mentor young women and men. Kathy has developed a curriculum using the case studies as a tool to encourage an increase in self-efficacy, communication tools, work/life balance and mentoring.

New York

After a road trip from DC (it took about 5 hours with traffic and stops – imagine 28 women needing to use the one loo at a 7/11) we finally arrived into New York. If you thought that DC was a busy place you definitely have not been to New York.

Turning the corner in Manhattan and seeing enough people to fill the auditorium back at home was an experience.

We found our hotel and as we tried to disembark and collect our bags, a cab driver would not vacate the parking area and it quickly turned into a yelling match between he and the hotel porter. “Welcome to New York,” the girls said.

Our first meeting in NYC was an absolute highlight. We met with Ms. Sunita Bajaj the Vice President and Treasurer of the International Women’s Entrepreneurial Challenge Foundation (IWEC). IWEC is a non-profit organisation, focussed on creating a global business network for successful women business owners, assisting them to expand access to international markets and is a platform for exchange and connectivity of women entrepreneurs around the world.  During this presentation we were so fortunate to also hear from two of the IWEC award winners, Dr. Sandi Webster and Dr. Bonnie Schnitta — amazing female business owners who have started multi-million dollar companies and spend their free time inspiring women in business by sharing experiences to promote preparedness for women entrepreneurs.

Our second and final meeting in NYC was with Women Entrepreneurs NYC (WE NYC), an initiative created to help women start and grow businesses in New York City. WE NYC assists over 10,000 small businesses a year by providing access to capital, skills development, legal services, networking and mentorship programs.

New Orleans

Well New Orleans, what can I say about you? Until I arrived, I was actually unaware of the perceived history of voodoo and vampires in the city. We only had three nights there and two full days, and after arriving from New York we were quite exhausted, but, we were in New Orleans!

Upon arrival, I ventured down to the French Quarter with my friend from Egypt to grab a quick bite before our planned tour. Intending on sandwiches we ended up having the traditional Creole gumbo and alligator tail. Always keen on trying something new, these went down a treat.

The tour of the French Quarter was invigorating. To see so much preservation go into these buildings from the 1800s was phenomenal. At home it is so sad to watch developers destroy beautiful buildings built with coral limestone by hand to make way for more modern development. It is a policy that many countries and territories could benefit from to keep their history and culture alive.

New Orleans provided some of my most interesting meetings. Among them, my favourite was Propellor. We met with Sydney Gray and I was introduced to my first co- shared working space and incubator and accelerator program.  Until this point I had been wondering what kind of services could be offered to young women in business in the Cook Islands to help them move past the initial start-up phase. This was it. This service has a number of success stories to its name even though it is still fairly young. They focus a lot on developing women in business and, in particular, minority women in business.

Another highlight in New Orleans was Hermione Malone from the Good Work Network. They run an extensive accelerator curriculum that assists business development, another tool I believe could be modelled and adapted for the Pacific context to assist women in business move from the start-up phase into small to medium enterprises.

We had lunch at Café Reconcile – a fantastic initiative almost like an incubator for young at-risk teens. The restaurant takes in kids and trains them in life skills, assists the process of getting basic working requirements, such as a social security number or bank account set up, and then trains them to work in the restaurant business. Working in the kitchen and back of house and then two weeks in the front of house. Once they have graduated from the program, they also try to assist the graduates to get permanent jobs.

Kansas City

Our transit to Kansas City took much longer than anticipated after a typhoon hit Texas. Although we were not travelling to Texas, we were still transiting there. After the flight was cancelled, we managed to get onto a direct flight to Kansas City, however we soon realised that the plane we were to board had to come from Texas so alas we waited until the weather was manageable and the flight could continue on to collect us.

Once in Kansas City, it was full speed ahead. Not dissimilar to the previous cities. A tech start-up event was being hosted and we had been registered to attend. At the spur of the moment, I decided to pitch an idea – a way to incentivise and gamify plastic recycling. My idea was selected and I then managed to form a team. My team then spent the remainder of the weekend, in fact till 10pm each night, working on our project.

Mentors were circling the event and we were able to meet with several mentors and get some insight into our project concept. Along the way we changed our focus from adults to children and created a prototype app and a design concept for a recycling bin that can tally the amount of recycling a child does over their entire school career.  There are different levels that can be reached and the more you recycle, the more rewards you gain along the way.

On the final night of the tech event, we had to present our idea to a panel of judges. We came in at second place. This was my first time at a start-up event and this was promptly added to my list of things I want to implement at home.

Other highlights of Kansas City were touring another co-shared working space Plexpod  (a huge space utilising a former school and another adjoining building) and meeting with the creator of InnovateHER, Lauren Conaway. Lauren runs a women-in-business network. It is mostly online but they also have monthly catch ups and workshops and events for members. Another one for my takeaway box.

And finally, Function Junction. The owner of Function Junction, Rebecca Merola was fascinating. Starting her business against the odds for a female in the 70s and multiplying it in just 10 months, this woman has a wealth of experience and she was more than happy to share it with us. A key point that stood out for me was how much online shopping, with the likes of sites like Amazon, have really damaged brick and mortar businesses such as Function Junction and that you really must be creative to get sales and keep a loyal customer base.


Miami was the perfect place to end this trip. Miami is a bit like a large-scale Spanish version of the Cook Islands: warm with smiley faces and coconut trees everywhere.  The perfect spot for me to start to get the feel of going back home and island life again.

A city known for its art, it was fascinating for me. Being in the creative industry, the whole art, architecture and music scene throughout all five cities was mind-blowing and it really made me realise how much this industry appeals to me.

A highlight in Miami was the marketing workshop with Nancy Allen from the Womens Business Development Council of South Florida.  There, we were able to spend a bit of time working on our business goals and a 90-day plan. My IVLP team has decided to share our 90-day plans with each other for accountability and continue these discussions and supporting one another to reach our goals.

And topping off this incredible program was the inspiring presentation by CEO of Celebrity Cruises Lisa Lutoff-Perlo. She is the first female CEO of a cruise liner and just smashes boundaries left, right, and centre in the cruise industry. She hired the first female captain, was incredibly instrumental in getting the first African woman on the bridge and is closing the gender gap in the cruise industry among many other accomplishments. There could not have been a better way to end this empowering journey.

The whole experience was a once in a lifetime trip and I strongly believe it will help my personal and business development and growth. I really need to thank everyone in the U.S. embassy for facilitating my attendance, World Learning and the Department of State for setting up the amazing meetings and locations, and the four wonderful liaisons that did an amazing job with logistics. I have made lifelong friends on the program from all corners of the world.


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