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Women in Business Q&A: Dr Marsha Firestone, Founder and President of the Women Presidents' Organization

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Dr. Marsha Firestone is the Founder and President of the Women Presidents' Organization (WPO), which began in 1997 as a peer advisory organization for women who own multi-million dollar businesses. She is also the Founder and President of the Women Presidents' Educational Organization, dedicated to increasing access to business opportunities for women's business enterprises (WBEs).

Dr. Firestone previously served as Vice President of Women Incorporated and as Vice President of Training and Counseling at the American Woman's Economic Development Corporation (AWED). Her career also includes positions as President of a for-profit educational institution; National Executive Director of Women's American ORT, a volunteer organization; and a faculty member at the American Management Association Competency-Based Management Development Program, at City University of New York, and at Adelphi University.

In 1998, Dr. Firestone was the Executive Director of The Women's Economic Summit. She led the development of a master plan for accelerating the growth of women's businesses, which was presented to Congress and the public in March 1999. In 2003, Dr. Firestone was appointed to a term on the National Women's Business Council representing the Women Presidents' Organization.

Dr. Firestone is the author of The Busy Woman's Guide to Successful Self-Employment and has published research in business and educational journals on adult learning theory, nonverbal communication, and managerial competency. She also serves the worldwide women's business community as a frequent guest speaker, with recent speaking engagements at Tulane University, Women's Leadership Network of APEC, Syracuse University, The Center for Women's Business Research Roundtable, and Unicul International in Tokyo, Japan. She was an official U.S. representative to OECD in 2003 in Turkey and to APEC Women's Network in Viet Nam in 2006.

Dr. Firestone shares her professional knowledge by serving on numerous boards and advisory councils including: Women's Leadership Initiative at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), Enterprising Women Advisory Board, Forbes Executive Women's Board, Newcomb College Institute Director's Advisory Council, the International Women's Forum, and The Women's Jewelry Association. She also sits on Mayor Bloomberg's Commission on MWBEs for New York City.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I have not had a traditional career path and I believe most women today do not have one. I've had many different career experiences, all of which have contributed to my ability to start and run WPO successfully. I learned financial management, budgeting and expense control from ITT Educational. I learned management from the American Management Association and about PR from the American Women's Economic Development Corporation (AWED). Each job experience became a graduate school course that enabled me to learn new skills that I have been able to apply in running WPO.

How did your previous employment experience aid your position at WPO?
I started WPO because at AWED I became aware that while there were many programs for startups, there were none for women-led businesses that had achieved a level of success. So after I realized there was a niche in the marketplace that was not being served, I came up with a way to do just that.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at WPO?
It is immensely satisfying for me that the organization has grown far beyond what I dreamed it would be. I came to realize a significant and positive impact we were having on the lives of business owners. Today we have 114 chapters on six continents, with plans to significantly expand our global presence, as well as grow our domestic chapters.

Among the challenges, of course, being a nonprofit is having to raise the funds needed to support the organization on an ongoing basis. We are extremely fortunate to have retained a number of corporate sponsors over many years. Without their support we could not have continued. Another challenge, like many organizations, is finding, training and retaining the right staff. A nonprofit is like any business and should be run as one.

How are female business owners driving growth in the economy?
WPO members account for significant economic growth. They generate $19 billion in aggregate revenue and employ 145,000 people. Two out of every three new businesses being started today are by women. I call entrepreneurship the great equalizer. By owning their own companies, women have more power, more influence and can pay themselves more. By 2018 one third of all U.S. jobs will be generated by women-led businesses (source: Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute).

What advice would you give to female business owners on how to succeed?
Here are my top ten strategies for accelerating growth:

• Understand your competition and customer needs; know what you're up against
• Clarify your uniqueness and how it distinguishes you from everyone else
• Set aggressive goals for growth; know where you want to go
• Attract, hire, train and retain high performance individuals; reward them appropriately
• Focus on a realistic growth strategy
• Work on your business, not in it
• Stay close to your clients and gain their confidence
• Be sophisticated in every aspect of technology
• Understand financials and use them to manage the company
• Seize opportunities; a cautious approach will only get you so far
• Change as the market requires

Stay focused. Don't over expand. Dream a big dream. Make sure you have the motivation to keep going, even on the darkest days. And keep the fire in your heart burning.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I have made a commitment that, unless it is absolutely necessary, I do not work on weekends. In order to be fresh, creative and able to generate new ideas, I need time to think. If I work around the clock I can't do that. I try to have a social life with my husband, so we can enjoy our friends and each other, as well as our children and grandchildren.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think one of the biggest issues is the perception that lingers - from corporate customers, the media and even other women -- that women business owners aren't as good as their male counterparts. When a male sales person calls on the CEO of a woman-led business, and the Chief Operating Officer is a man, the conversation is directed from one man to another. The CEO is out of the conversation. Perceptions need to change about the strength and abilities of women.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Growing up in Mobile, Alabama there were no business role models or mentors. The people who made the biggest difference in my professional life were my peers, with whom I shared ideas and whose opinions I respected. I learned most new ideas and approaches from other leaders. Peer learning is at the core of the WPO business model. Each year WPO members gather at our annual conference to share business strategies and experiences. This year is our 17th annual conference. Focusing on Sustaining Success in a Changing World, it will be held in New Orleans. Over 800 of the world's most successful women business owners will join us in NOLA to learn from interactive seminars and inspirational speakers, including Ping Fu, Lauren Bush Lauren, Pavitha K. Mehta and Simon Sinek.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
As head of an organization for successful business women, I don't look at traditional kinds of leadership. And I stay away from political observations, because WPO is a combination of many different viewpoints. I tend to respect female leaders who have started and grown successful businesses, particularly in non-traditional industries, like trucking and construction.

What are your hopes for the future of WPO?
I want to grow WPO and the number of women-owned businesses that are larger than the traditional vision, but not so large we lose the intimacy and personal contact we have developed over the years. That makes us unique. We will continue to service our peers by bringing the "genius out of the group." WPO is as much about giving as it is about getting.