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Breaking through Featured

7:26am EDT October 29, 2004
Women entering the work force today may have a few surprises waiting for them. Lorraine Ball, president of the Network of Women in Business and owner of consulting firm Roundpeg, says there's a common misperception that our mothers have already paved the way for women to succeed by breaking through the so-called glass ceiling.

But that, Ball says, is simply not true, especially in industries such as manufacturing and commercial real estate.

"They (women) are surprised when they run into it [glass ceiling]," she says.

Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, NOWIB was formed to provide a sounding board for women business owners and executives. In 1979, no other organization provided that function. NOWIB was designed to provide its members with networking and friendship opportunities -- opportunities that enable women to broaden their careers, Ball says.

"You can ask a member, 'You just got promoted, how did you do it?'" she says.

Today, however, NOWIB isn't the only professional organization providing networking opportunities. And that's why Ball is making changes to its programming in an effort to target new members.

Beyond the traditional networking opportunities, Ball has cut several deals to offer members access to high-profile, high-powered business and government executives, and is putting her members deeper into the loop about the inner workings of the city.

"It is hard to put a price tag on that information," Ball says. "It can be a powerful thing."

NOWIB, she says, is looking to attract new members who have not joined other professional organizations. There are thousands of women who are unaffiliated with groups, and Ball hopes to draw from this pool rather than take members from existing groups.

And, as part of her changes, NOWIB is expanding its leadership group to avoid burnout. Previously, a dozen or so women were in charge of most of the programming and project,s and were tasked with the bulk of the labor, leading to a lot of them walking away after a period of time. Now, the goal is to have more than 40 women as chairs of committees by year's end.

"We are taking a divide-and-conquer approach to ensure our success," Ball says.

Smart Business spoke with Ball about the challenges women executives face and how NOWIB helps them meet those challenges.

 

What prompted the Network's formation in 1979, and is its mission still similar today?

 

There weren't many places where professional women could meet. So eight women founded the network. They envisioned an organization dedicated to the development and growth of businesswomen in managerial, executive or professional positions.

Our mission is the same today -- to provide a venue where professional women can make contacts and create friendships and connections with others who have similar interests and needs.

 

What have been the Network's biggest challenges?

 

In 25 years, there have been a lot of challenges. Recently, I would say providing consistency and depth to the programming and organization has been our biggest challenge. We've had a lot of turnover in the leadership of the organization, which meant not a lot of consistency.

There were a few women that did the bulk of the work, and they got burned out and walked away. So we have been working to change that. Seven of the women on our board this year will stay into next year, and our vice president and treasurer are also staying on. There were 12 women holding leadership roles in the past. Today, there are 28, and we are doing more succession planning, to become a healthier organization.

By the year-end, we hope to have 41 women in leadership roles -- we have enough projects for them -- so that not one chair of each group is doing everything. We now have speakers lined up through mid-next year.

 

What are the biggest challenges women face in today's business world?

 

Twenty-five years ago, we knew there was a glass ceiling for women in business. Today, the edges of that ceiling are thinner, but there are still industries where women will get to a certain point and get no further.

Part of the challenge is that often a woman's greatest strength is not always valued. Typically women manage by collaboration and in a team concept. We have a desire to get others' opinions, and that can be looked at as a weakness or as indecisiveness by men. That is still a challenge.

The younger generation of women can be naïve about the glass ceiling. Their perception is that, 'My mom did that (blew through the glass ceiling) -- it's not there anymore. Some of the industries where we still find that ceiling are in some manufacturing industries, financial planning and commercial real estate. It's easy to find executive positions in the marketing and human resources fields.

But in these other industries, there is still an absence of mentors for young professional women. A lot of women still think that if we work hard that someone will notice. And often it just isn't that simple.

Talking to other women in similar roles helps. You can ask the question -- 'You just got promoted, how did you do it?' Getting access to other women in other companies can be valuable because often you can't talk to others in the same company.

 

What are the most beneficial tools the Network provides its members?

 

The first and foremost beneficial tool is access to women, ideas and information. We have some marvelous speakers that have high-level, visible leadership roles in both the public and private sector. They discuss business issues as well as how being a woman affects what they do.

There are also small group discussions at the tables and important information about what's happening in Indianapolis. We also bring in men and women who know who's doing what -- what the vision is for the future. We are bringing in high-level executives who know the inner workings of the city. They give us the insider scoop at the city's biggest employers.

And we also have smaller special interest groups that meet all around the city and discuss specific issues. We have marketing, sales, communications and entrepreneurs special interest groups, as well as downtown and north side lunch groups.

 

How does your background as an educator help in your role as president of NOWIB?

 

I have been an elementary teacher, a business teacher at a college, and I own my own business. There are several pieces that I draw from each of those experiences. My background as a teacher helped me put together relevant material geared to the attention span of adult women.

The programs are informative but have to move quickly. Most recently, I've owned my own business, which means I'm willing to take risks. And I've learned that there are different approaches to achieving goals, and I am flexible enough to make changes when I recognize that something is not working.

This can re-energize others, and we have made some very positive changes in the network.

 

How do you plan to grow the organization?

 

Marketing. It's been an interesting organization. We were very large at one point, then smaller again as other organizations formed.

We decided to identify and target the most appropriate women for our organization. We are very fortunate that we have committee chairman that are marketing professionals.

We upgraded our Web site and developed one newsletter that is being requested by twice the number of women that are in our membership. We are targeting successful professional women who are after programming that they can't get anywhere else. There are thousands of unaffiliated women, and we want them to join us. We are not competing for the same women who are already part of other organizations, but those who are not going to anything.

We are marketing our speakers first and our venue second because it is not the venue that is the attraction, it is clearly the speakers. Our marketing group, for example, has scheduled some high-level speakers. It started out with five members attending, and we now have 25 or 30 members there. It is about niche programming and communicating. We send out direct mail with our calendars to all the members and ask them to identify guests who would be interested in the programs.

And you have to make those guests feel welcome. So often, you attend a meeting and no one talks to you. When you leave, you don't go back because you didn't have fun or you didn't feel comfortable.

We get to know our guests and call them after the meeting and ask them to come back. We don't let them sit by themselves.

 

Are there an increasing or decreasing number of women business leaders in the Indianapolis region and why?

 

I have no scientific facts, but my perception is that not a lot of top executives in the area are women, although there are more than you realize. It's just that women executives tend to be more low-profile. I don't see a lot of announcements about women CEOs.

Some companies that are started by women get bought out by someone else. We lose a lot of local companies. And I still see a lot of the traditional ol' boy town here, especially in manufacturing and some other industries. At one of the bigger companies in town, women can get to a level II executive, but you don't see them way at the top.

My perception is we're about the same as we have been for several years -- I don't see huge increases or decreases in women executives. We have stable companies and industries and not a lot of rapid change, which creates opportunities for women. We have had some changes but not anything dramatic.

 

What are the Network's biggest operational challenges, and how do you meet them?

 

Our biggest challenge is financial. We came into this year with significant debt, which we needed to turn around and address with our membership. The only way to address it was to grow through memberships. That's another reason we have developed more innovative programs and sponsorship opportunities.

We restructured our debt, and our creditors are happy. We will be debt-free by the end of next year, probably sooner. We are also looking at changing our structure. In the past, we've had professional management companies running the organization. Now, the board is running it.

We have wonderful leadership and training opportunities. We have a great mix of women. Some are young -- 25 or 26 -- and then we also have seasoned professionals. It is great to team up the women right out of school with those who have 30 years of experience.

It gives the younger women opportunities because they can say, 'I helped lead a fund-raising event for 200 people for NOWIB, I can replicate that here.' How to reach: Network of Women in Business, (317) 767-7672 or www.nowib.com