It’s lonely at the top—especially for women.
The 2013 State of Women-Owned Business Report commissioned by American Express OPEN found that, while women-owned businesses grew at 1.5 times the national average between 1997 and 2013, just 4% exceed the $500,000 annual revenue mark. According to research firm GMI’s 2013 Women on Boards Survey, women held just 11% of board seats at the world’s largest and best-known companies, up just 1.7% since 2009.
But a little-known organization gives very high-achieving women a place to find peers. The Committee of 200, C200 to most, is a membership organization for women who own businesses earning more than $20 million annual revenue or who manage corporate profit and loss reports of more than $250 million. Half of members run businesses of more than $400 million. Criteria for membership varies somewhat by industry. Fifty-two members serve on corporate boards, occupying 69 total board seats within the 2014 Fortune 500. Sixty-five percent were founders or co-founders of their businesses.
The group started in 1982 when a group of successful businesswomen gathered in Los Angeles to raise $200,000 for the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO). Those women, including Katherine Graham and Christie Hefner, saw the strength of the informal group they had created and decided to form a membership organization to help each other. C200 membership now totals roughly 450 women, including Denise M. Morrison, president and CEO of Campbell Soup Company and Ellen J. Kullman, chairman of the board and CEO of DuPont.
If it all sounds rarefied—well, it is. But organization chair Gay Gaddis, founder of Austin, Texas, integrated marketing agency T3, bristles at the suggestion that this is just a group of wealthy women helping other wealthy women.
"The reason I take a little bit of umbrage of that is that, we have the means, and because we have made it to a certain level of success, a lot of our members have the money to pay it back," she says.
That payback comes in different ways. Gaddis says the women help each other as any peer group would. They solve business problems and coach corporate members to get their next big promotions. The organization is committed to increasing the number of women who sit on corporate boards and Gaddis is working on positioning the organization as a place to find highly qualified prospects.
The organization’s foundation is dedicated to fostering future business leaders. The newly resurrected Protégé Program mentors groups of women-owned businesses with at least $5 million annual revenue. That’s still a high threshold, but Gaddis maintains there are other organizations NAWBO, that serve women-owned businesses with lower revenue levels. The current class includes 15 women ranging in age from 32 to 62. Protégés accepted into the program attend 26 sessions taught by C200 members and each is assigned a C200 mentor.
The previous program ran from 1999 through 2004, with roughly five to six members completing the program each year. Of those, five grew their businesses enough to become full C200 members. Those women are all working on the program’s re-launch, sharing their experiences to help improve that ratio. That experience of benefitting from the Protégé Program makes them committed to it, says Laura Herring, founder and chairwoman of St. Louis, Missouri human resources consulting firm IMPACT Group,
"I was so grateful because, for the first time, I found peers who were in the $6 million range who were kind of stuck because we didn’t know what we didn’t know," she says.
Another way the organization fosters future business leaders is through a series of "Reachouts," at high schools, colleges, and MBA programs. Members speak to students, participate in panels and roundtable discussions and answer questions about careers in business. The organization also names scholars with awards as much as $10,000 each, to help identify and support women to become highly successful. The foundation has led 56 Reachouts, including nine international programs, reaching more than 11,000 students.
"Our scholars also mirror our activities, having their own symposiums annually as well as their own web meetings, education sessions, and intimate counsels and so on," says Larraine Segil, chair of the C200 Foundation and CEO of Little Farm Company, based near Los Angeles.
Gaddis sees C200 as an organization that can motivate other women and give them something for which to strive. And, for members, it’s a place to find fellowship among others that have similar experiences.
"You need encouragement in every place in life. Every place you go, you have to have someone," she says. "We want to do something to make sure that the next generation of women has a leg to stand on and a start. We have to continue to fight the fight and keep moving our own careers so they have a light ahead of them to keep coming," she says.
[Image: Flickr user Engin Erdogan]