The Number of Women-Led Businesses is Growing, But Not Fast Enough, Says WPO CEO

While the number of women-led businesses is growing worldwide, this growth needs to accelerate, says Women Presidents Organization (WPO) CEO Camille Burns.

“We’re seeing a positive change in the number of women who run successful businesses worldwide, but that growth is too slow,” says Burns, who joined the WPO in 2000 and took over as CEO in December 2019.

Supporting women who run successful businesses is what the WPO is all about.

“We’re a diverse and dynamic global community of women entrepreneurs who come together [at WPO meetings] to be recognized and to work with other women entrepreneurs on making our businesses even more successful,” she says.

The organization’s biggest meeting is imminent. Between May 10 and 12 this year, 750 WPO members from across the world will gather in Las Vegas, United States, for the WPO’s 26th annual gathering. This is the first year that the gathering will be staged as a forum instead of a conference – the Entrepreneurial Excellence Forum (EEF).

The format has been changed to “tap into the community feeling”, which is one of the WPO’s greatest strengths, Burns says.

“When you go to a WPO meeting you enter a room full of CEOs and you can feel the energy; it’s palpable. We wanted a forum format to tap into that energy.”

Considering the WPO’s membership requirements, this energy is easily imaginable. To qualify, candidates must run their company’s day-to-day management as a top executive leader and have an ownership interest in their privately owned business. The business must reach $2-million in gross annual sales if it is a product-based business, or $1-million if it is a service-based business.

A highlight of the EEF will be the announcement, on May 11, of the 16th annual listing of the 50 Fastest Growing Women-Owned/Led Companies™, sponsored by JPMorgan Chase Commercial Banking. This list is based solely on growth rate and is a way to honor the women who run these rapidly evolving businesses.

Burns says that it is “exciting” to see that several of the companies on the list are in sectors that are less traditional arenas for women-led business, such as technology and product-based business.

The list also reveals that businesses led by women are finding easier access to capital than previously although this does not mean that women business leaders’ battle to secure this access is even nearly over. “The numbers are small, but things are changing a little bit and that shows that the work being done on access to capital and equity for women is slowly having an impact,” she says.

Women-led business’s time is coming, Burns says: these organizations are more visible than ever before, and as the corporate world has switched to a more collaborative, less hierarchical culture, women leaders, to whom collaboration often comes naturally, have flourished.

Another conference highlight will be presentations by Sandra Douglass Morgan and Kristi Coleman, the only two women presidents of US National Football League (NFL) teams. They will explore how the roles of women in the male-dominated sports arena are slowly changing, and what their experiences of this world are.

Under Burns’s leadership, the WPO has expanded from a US-based community of 200 women to a global one of 2 000 members. Burns says that this growth was organic, and attributes it to the organization’s “very powerful” raison d’etre as a “safe space” where women who are business leaders can be vulnerable enough to express their doubts and failures, find support and gain a sense of being part of a community that faces challenges similar to the ones they themselves face.

The EEF will kick off with a session facilitated by Ellen Leikind, founding CEO of PokerDivas, a company that uses the skills acquired at a poker table to convey leadership and negotiation lessons. This, says Burns, will provide the fun needed to break the ice and help attendees who may not have yet met each other to form bonds.

The forum will also end spectacularly, with a performance from concert pianist Jade Simmonds, CEO of Jade Media Global, who weaves leadership lessons into her concerts.

Burns says the WPO’s meetings, which generally take place throughout the year and close to where the WPO’s members live and work, are a step away from the day-to-day for the women who attend them. Many report leaving them feeling “energized” instead of exhausted.

Switching the big annual meeting to a forum format follows the changes Burns has seen in the WPO over two decades, with members being far more collaborative now than they were previously.

“I also love the multigenerational learning that can happen, the juxtaposition of experience from older members who, for example, have seen economic slumps come and go, and the new ideas that come from younger members. We can all learn from each other.”