By Aliza Pilar Sherman
When Marsha Firestone was applying for the top position at a professional women's organization where she had worked for a number of years, she pitched the idea of starting a new organization geared toward very successful women business owners. Her idea was not embraced.
"They did not give me the job," recalls Firestone, founder and president of the Women Presidents' Organization. "So I left, brokenhearted, and started the WPO on my own."
Firestone's heartache was short-lived, as the first WPO chapter, started in New York City in 1996, grew quickly and new chapters followed. She anticipates the organization will have 80 chapters by year's end.
"My idea was to [get] small groups of women—20 max—to come together to work on their businesses," says Firestone, who noticed that there were several organizations for young businesses but nothing available for "second stage" entrepreneurs.
Instead of giving specific advice and telling one another how they should handle their companies, the women share what they've learned from running their own businesses. Unlike networking organizations, professional facilitators lead WPO chapter meetings to help set the agenda.
"I heard about the WPO in 2003 when a friend called and introduced me to[it]," says Linda Bi, president of Batavia, Illinois-based Chicago Expert Importers, a global supplier and national distributor of axle components and casting products that she co-founded with her husband after moving to the U.S. from China. A few years before joining the WPO, Bi took over the company following her husband's sudden death. "It was amazing to find a group of women who had backgrounds very similar to mine, and we could share our views, challenges and ideas in a very beneficial way. I've developed great friendships and support systems. I [don't know] how I managed without them."
Bi, whose company has revenue of more than $22 million, admits that her business challenges aren't limited to keeping up with the fast growth of her company, dealing with cash flow and retaining quality personnel. "As a minority in both my race and gender, my abilities and knowledge are often underestimated, especially because there's a lack of female managers in the casting industry," Bi, 49, admits. "Facing this discrimination made me work harder to prove my capabilities. Along with the support of WPO, this ambition shaped me into who I am today."
"We are not a networking group, although 68 percent of our members do business with each other," says Firestone. "The primary goal is substantive—we really focus on the quality of our programming." Programs include webcasts, regional seminars and an annual conference, as well as monthly meetings.
To become a WPO member, companies must have minimum revenue of $1 million for a service company and $2 million for a products company. Visit the organization's website for more information. Firestone has already launched an international chapter of the WPO in Peru and plans to start chapters in Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom.
Looking for more information for and about women entrepreneurs? Check out womenentrepreneur.com.
Aliza Sherman is a web pioneer, e-entrepreneur and author of eight books, including PowerTools for Women in Business. Her work can be found at mediaegg.com.
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