Recap: Inaugural W.I.S.E. Event in Austin
The recent W.I.S.E. event held in Austin, Texas this past October proved to be a great time for the women in the sign industry who attended. I couldn’t be more proud of this inaugural event I put together with the help of other sign shops.
Before proceeding with a recap of this W.I.S.E. event, I’d like to give you a little background information about our group and its origins.
One evening in 2020, I began searching social media platforms for a ladies-only network focused on signage. I found nothing!
With the help of Google, I came across a Women Leading the Industry (WLI) event held each year at ISA Sign Expo and quickly joined the initiative’s LinkedIn page.
Still the lack of a social media network specifically by and for women in the sign industry gnawed at me to the point where I was driven to create one.
I knew from the events I had attended, my daily work interactions, and my correspondence with others that there were a multitude of women who had plenty to share with and learn from each other. These women in signs were well-informed strategists engineering many aspects of the sign industry.
Finally I created a quick Facebook page and asked a new hire team member to create a basic logo. I noticed the acronym “WIS” began popping off the page. Considering we are leaders in small and large companies, designers, sales, project managers, production team members, installers, fabricators, and painters—we are more than just women in signs. We are Women In Signs, Etcetera. We are W.I.S.E.!
We have been interacting on this thriving social network for over two years now. It was time to go public for our first-ever W.I.S.E. event in the great city of Austin.
Plans were executed, hotels were booked, and flights were scheduled. The Screen Actors Guild may have been on strike at the time, but we would have our own Lights, Cameras, and Action during this W.I.S.E. event!
Our itinerary/agenda was filled with two full days of connecting, learning, and experiencing our craft through touring two local signage facilities.
Colleen Esakson, Key Account and Sales Trainer at SignComp, began by leading the demonstration and training of all things SignComp and raceway material.
Joe Lupton then lit up the room with Principal Sloan LED training. He addressed the importance of not being afraid to connect LEDs to the latest iPad software to run an entire lighting layout.
The first local sign shop scheduled on our tour was Ion Art, founded in 1986 by Greg and Sharon Keshishian. They provide custom neon, art, signage, sculptures, and more.
The word “wow” doesn’t even express the amazing work they create. Each team member possesses a skill and talent to produce unique, unfathomable neon and custom signage that must be seen to be believed.
During the tour, we met the Ion Art design, fabrication, design, and paint departments. The collaboration and synergy this team has is infectious.
Enjoying the morning with Sharon and COO Kris Wu, one couldn’t help but be inspired, and I spoke with them about this industry.
What is one major decision that helped your company grow the most?
Sharon: “I can’t say one major thing stood out except ‘luck.’ Ion Art landed the first Whole Foods® job in the country. They took that opportunity to showcase and grow.
“Also who are you competing with? I value art quality like Germany and Italy. Yes other countries can do the same thing—but cheap and fast. Who do you want to be?”
What is your daily tip for success?
Sharon: “Don’t hire grumps.”
Kris: “Stay adaptable and allow for change yet be grateful and flexible.”
Sharon: “[Have] tenacity [and] stick it out. There were times I didn’t know how we would pay employees or vendors.
“Others would tell me to go get a real job; art can’t pay the bills. But I never gave up. Do what you love!”
It was a somber, almost sad moment when we were leaving this first-class sign company, as we were all wanting to see so much more. The next time you are in Austin, be sure to look up Ion Art. Tell them Wendy sent you and thank me later.
We ended the first day with roundtable discussions, fueled with excitement for new processes and ideas. Ultimately the ladies were looking forward to a great evening sponsored by Principal Sloan at an amazing new hot spot, the Sign Bar.
Personally I felt so relieved. I was hearing friendships being made and common struggles and situations being discussed. The sappy person in me shed a tear of joy. It was all coming together.
Day two commenced at the signage company FSG. Founded in 1982, FSG now has over 2,000 employees—including its lighting division, a new ADA signage division, electrical contractors, signage professionals, and more. They are, “Around the Nation, Around the Corner.”
FSG also pays attention to a high level of detail making creative custom signs. As we walked through their Austin facility (an area of 55,000 square feet), I found similarities to my own sign company—never enough space, processes that I recognized, projects ready to go make a difference for a company’s marketing, etc.
I had the pleasure to meet and chat with two of their women managers, Connie Hernandez and Michele Palbick.
What brought you to the sign industry?
Michele: “I started self-taught in my family business. Then once you’re in, you’re addicted. There’s excitement of seeing the outcome and watching the build and a great amount of pride in helping clients.”
Connie: “I used to manage a 7-11 store, [so] I always knew about signs and the variety that the industry offered.”
What tips can you offer that keep you on track for success?
Michele: “Focus on personal relationships with clients that will turn into repeat customers and referrals. Do what you say and don’t be afraid to guide them when needed. Education on products is important.”
Connie: “I use Excel to keep projects on track internally with staff and clients. I also make sure to encourage our team members and schedule weekly check-in meetings.”
An information session followed the tour. SignComp’s Colleen Esakson dove into teaching everyone some pointers to consider when ordering raceways and how to utilize the SignComp book without fear.
This presentation encouraged each lady to participate in a “#SignCompIt” challenge, a head-to-head timed competition. We found some impressive times.
In the end, knowledge was the real winner, accompanied by a lot of good cheering with laughter.
We wrapped up the first W.I.S.E. event with some giveaways and open discussions about inspiring your team, landing unique clients, and setting yourself up for growth.
Attendee Stacey Gagne won the prize for the longest distance traveled (an epic car ride from Canada). She started her career thirteen years ago looking for a local graphic design position and ended up loving how unique and ever changing the sign industry was—eventually advancing to a few different positions in it.
“Meet as many people as you can and never stop learning from them,” Stacey told me. “Constantly educating yourself is what will lead to your personal growth.”
We closed this initial W.I.S.E. event with a quick discussion on the book Peaks and Valleys—a thin yet powerful little read on the flow of life and business.
“A plateau can be a time for you to rest, reflect, and renew.”
“You change your valley into a peak when you find and use the good that is hidden in the bad time.”
Both quotes made me pause. I hope that the time away from the daily sign grind allowed the attendees to do just that.
Since Thursday morning’s arrival, the ladies wore name tags that read, “I am WISE, I am ____.” In our final group setting, we were all tasked with finishing that sentence. We couldn’t say “Mom,” “Wife,” or the traditional titles.
It was awe-inspiring hearing women share such powerful words and a full circle to why the group had even started. For me, it was a full circle to why the group even started.
We are more than moms, wives, friends, sisters, and more. Each day, we bring value to everything we do. Never forget who you are. I am WISE; I am BOLD.
Wendy Graves is president of InSIGNia Wholesale.