Increased visibility

Not long ago, Pat Gibson, president of PMG Communications Inc., was frustrated — she felt women weren’t visible enough as community leaders and no organization was doing anything about it.

As a result, she and 19 other women formed Women for Economic and Leadership Development (WELD) in 2003 to address the issues of economic development facing women and to promote the advancement of women in leadership roles. Two months later, WELD held its first meeting and 70 women, many more than expected, showed up.

“From there, it kept growing,” says Gibson, WELD’s president. By the end of the first year, WELD had 130 members, due in part to electronic marketing techniques. Gibson also attributes its success to its ability to attract quality speakers and its program format, which she describes as talk show-like. WELD also garnered attention with its 2005 calendar, with a regional woman business leader representing each month.

“It all comes down to great programming every month,” Gibson says. “We are starting to see some progress in raising the visibility of women, and there are more women getting involved in public policy.”

Smart Business spoke with Gibson about how she turned an idea into reality and the challenges of running a rapidly growing organization.

Why did you found WELD?

It mainly came out of frustration. There wasn’t a woman’s organization which served the purpose of developing and promoting women community leaders. The goal was to increase the visibility of women, to make sure that whenever a panel of experts is put together, those experts include women.

We felt if we weren’t concentrating our efforts to that end, it just wasn’t going to happen.

How did you develop the organization’s recruitment strategies?

We all had good databases. Most of us own businesses, so we pulled lists of who we know and who we wanted. We conducted e-mail marketing and put together good meeting notices.

We send out three meeting notices, and with each one we promote the meeting a little harder, with the biggest push on the third. We started out just wanting people to come to the meeting, so there was little price differentiation for the meetings between members and nonmembers so we could build value.

It took a leap of faith. Our first members achieved founding member status. We recruited recognized leaders. And what we’ve now started to do is focus on providing excellent programming, different speakers, and have them join us for some of the activities. Our membership dues are not that much because we don’t want that to be a barrier. Our efforts worked. We recruited 130 members in less than a year, and brought in Marie Wilson, who wrote the book, “Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Lead the World.”

Why have these strategies succeeded?

Because we focused on our targets. We have more aggressive targets for next year, and with continued hard work from the board, I think we’ll succeed. We started from scratch, so our board is a working board. They have put in a lot of time and effort, and it is their efforts that made the organization successful.

What are your plans for growth?

Our major strategy is to increase the number of women who are leaders in the community. We are gaining traction with our growth as we get more members and more visibility. We are looking at forming [partnerships] with other business organizations and want WELD to be seen as the go-to organization for women leaders.

When an organization wants more women involved in something, we want them to say, ‘Let’s call WELD to see who they recommend.’ That was the thought behind the calendar we developed at the beginning of the year. The objective was to raise the visibility of these women who are already leaders but flying below the radar screen.

Women tend not to self-promote. If we want to achieve our goals, that is going to have to change. Our monthly programming has worked to bring in members; now we have to start giving them clout.

Another way of getting traction is through a business growth initiative. Women represent more than half of all business owners, but when you look at what they earn, it can be discouraging. We want to develop our own resources or work with others to overcome those limitations.

For example, take capital funding. We hope that members will get together, research the topic and find out who they can get to come in and talk about how to do it successfully.

What was your turning point as an organization?

The day we had our first meeting. We had 70 people, and there was so much energy in the room. We spent two months preparing, and we got a bigger turnout than we expected. The format we use is more like a talk show format. I’m used to interviewing people, and I find that almost everybody is more comfortable in a conversation.

And the topics we’ve chosen have been very interesting. Our first speaker was Janet Jackson of the United Way. She talked about overcoming obstacles. She was poor and lived in a rural community. She was the first African-American girl that attended high school there.

It was incredible and inspiring. Others felt like, ‘I’m not all that different from her, maybe I can overcome my obstacles, too.’

What have been your biggest challenges in managing such a rapidly growing organization, and how do you meet them?

Time is the biggest challenge. We are all volunteers, and that is going to have to change. We will need to have a paid staff. Right now, we have a part-time administrative person, but soon we’ll need a paid executive director.

We have developed corporate membership goals to get us there. We can go to companies now and ask for support because we have a story to tell. We have an executive committee meeting once a month and a board meeting once a month.

Our board structure is like running a successful company. We have areas of responsibility. Our vice president of public relations is responsible for recruiting people, which will help further our goals. We need additional help from new members; delegating is what we need to do more of.

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