A Q&A with Marsha Firestone, president and founder of the Women Presidents’ Organization
By Kathryn Swintek, Managing Partner of Golden Seeds Fund 2October 10, 2019
Entrepreneurship | Insights | Women Entrepreneurs | Women Founders | Women in Business
Marsha Firestone, Ph.D., is the president and founder of the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO), a peer-advisory group for women entrepreneurs who own and lead multi-million dollar businesses. The group is dedicated to helping accelerate business growth, promote economic security for women-owned and women-led businesses and provide continuing education in a collaborative, peer-focused setting.
Golden Seeds celebrates the WPO and is proud to partner with them in advancing education and access to capital for women entrepreneurs.
Kathryn Swintek, Managing Partner of Golden Seeds Fund 2, recently sat down with Marsha to talk about leadership, motivation and two decades of helping women entrepreneurs.
KS: When you first decided to create the WPO, what was your main motivation?
MF: I was working for a nonprofit called the American Women’s Economic Development Corporation and I noticed that there were so many women who were coming through who had just started their careers or who had very young companies. But it didn’t seem that there were any resources or programs available for women whose businesses were more mature and who had already achieved a certain level of success. I was concerned about those women because I wanted them to be able to build bigger businesses and compete.
I often heard that all businesses run by women were “mom and pop” organizations and I never wanted to hear that again. So I started WPO as one way to address that need. That misrepresentation of women-run businesses has subsided but it hasn’t gone away completely. We still have far to go, but we have grown a great deal. At WPO, from that first chapter I began in 1997, we now have 140 chapters on six continents and over 2,000 members.
KS: Is there one particular reason you hear most frequently as to why women join the WPO?
MF: One of the most important reasons is the connections they make with other women whom they meet in WPO. We’re a peer-advisory group and we focus on business education so that when our members go to organizations like Golden Seeds, they’re prepared when they’re looking for access to capital and other business opportunities.
Another reason is they learn strategies to help them grow their companies. In order to join WPO, you have to have at least $1 million in revenue, which demonstrates where these members are when they join and that they are looking to scale their companies.
Members also support and learn from one another. One of the things that differentiates the WPO is that we don’t ask members to serve as officers or do the “hands-on” work. We have a staff for that so our members can focus on the reason they’re here — growing their companies. WPO meetings also reduces some of the stress these female executives are facing day-to-day.
KS: You clearly have a lot of experience observing women entrepreneurs throughout the world. Thinking about leadership, what are the key leadership qualities that you see in the entrepreneurs who succeed? Can you comment on how that differs from men?
MF: I do — I think one of those qualities is being innovative and creative and women do this remarkably well. I polled our members and asked them to identify what they thought were the most important influences that they, as leaders, needed to grow and №1 was innovation and creativity. For women in particular, another quality that really shines through is that they’re driven and simply don’t give up. Self-confidence is critical to their success. The ones who are successful understand financials and use them to help guide their businesses activities day-to-day.
KS: Since you have chapters all over the world, are there any leadership trends for women that you see internationally that differ from here in the States? What are the common trends you see regardless of geography?
MF: We’re seeing tremendous growth, both within the U.S. and internationally. International chapters started after the U.S. chapters so it’s great to see the growth. Internationally, we recently celebrated our 10th anniversary with our five South African chapters, and we now have 18 chapters in Canada.
One similarity that we see both internationally and here in the U.S. is that many of the businesses are service-oriented because the founders don’t have the capital to start businesses that are more focused on product, although that’s changing. Groups like Golden Seeds are doing a tremendous job providing capital for product-focused companies, but women still don’t have enough capital to launch and grow companies that were once considered male-dominated businesses. We need more businesses and more women like Christina Lampe Onnerud, who founded Cadenza Innovation, a company poised to become a world leader in battery safety, architecture and performance.
KS: What advice about leadership do you have for women wanting to grow their business to the next level?
MF: I worked for the American Management Association for three years, and while I was there, they ran a survey with a Harvard consulting group and came up with a list of 18 competencies which were causally related to leadership, success and management. I was in that program and as a result I began to understand what it takes to be a leader. Those 18 characteristics and competencies have helped me grow WPO. The competencies were published in a book, “The Competent Manager,” and I used them to train myself as a leader and now, to train others as leaders.
KS: How does leadership by women differ from when you started the organization 22 years ago? What do you hope it looks like 22 years from now?
MF: What I really want is not to need organizations like WPO or Golden Seeds anymore, though I don’t think that will ever be the case. I believe in lifelong learning and since we are a business education organization, I think there will always be a need for that education to help women-owned and women-led businesses to scale.
That’s really what we want — we want members to be strengthened and stronger than they were when they joined WPO. I want there to be a respect for these businesses and an ability to reach out and find financing so that we can start businesses that are more than service-oriented. I want to see growth in size, number of employees and revenue.
KS: You are well known for your own leadership of the WPO and the organization’s impressive growth. To what do you attribute that?
MF: It was a commitment I made to myself. Years ago there were three women’s nonprofits that went bankrupt and I swore that would never be me or WPO. I wanted a healthy organization financially and we are, and I’m proud of that.
An important characteristic to which I attribute our success is the educational programing we offer. This educational programing for businesses truly enables these companies to grow. I believe in programs that are defined by the members themselves. We know from research that adults learn best when they determine what they want to learn, when they want to learn it and how they want to learn it. That is part of our programing — chapters are each run by very successful business owners who are consultants, and their job is to bring the “genius that exists out of the group”. We are a peer-learning group and we learn from each other very effectively.