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Women Business Builders Take Toronto

A report from the front lines of women-run business

More than 400 women gathered in Toronto at the Four Seasons Hotel from April 7-9 for the Women Presidents’ Organization’s Annual Conference. This year’s theme, Driving Business Breakthroughs, united the forward-thinking leaders in a three-day exploration of strategies for increasing sales, broadening brand recognition, connecting with customers, and going global.

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The tone for this high-energy weekend of conversation was set during the opening session, as Fast Company Editor in Chief John Byrne and WPO President Marsha Firestone unveiled the winners of the first-ever Women Business Builders awards — the top 25 women entrepreneurs in North America, as profiled in the May 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.

15 winners were on hand to receive their awards in person, including four women leaders who remained on stage to kick off the conference with a panel entitled “Most Successful Strategies.” It was a free-wheeling hour of conversation offering tips and advice for audience members to use in building their own businesses, followed by questions from the audience. The panel offered a snapshot of what made this first year of awards so special: the diversity of industries (high-fashion shoes, marketing, technology, high-speed baking) and geoographies (Los Angeles, Boston, Dallas) that women leaders are affecting by striking out on their own to create new businesses. And the audience was particularly focused on the panelists’ feet: The whole group was outfitted with shoes by number 1 winner and shoe designer, Taryn Rose.

Here are some highlights from the panel:

Cordia Harrington, president and CEO of the Tennessee Bun Company, stressed the importance of transparency. When asked how to make it through the lean years when it seems difficult even to make payroll, Harrington said she maintains a policy of completely open books. That way, she said, employees know exactly where the company stands — when times are good, they share the rewards, and when times are lean, they can see exactly how razor thin margins are. “Everyone is on the same team, and no one ever thinks the company is giving them short shrift,” Harrington said.

Similarly, Taryn Rose, president of Los Angeles-based Taryn Rose International, kept the audience buzzing when she shared that all her employees, from top executives right on down to the receptionist, receive the same bonuses when the company does well. “Your receptionist gets the same bonus as your marketing director?” one audience member asked incredulously. Rose explained: “First, your receptionist is often the first contact — the first representation of your brand — that a customer has with your company. Finding a great receptionist is really important. But second,” she continued, “I figure my executives are already compensated very highly because of the nature of their jobs. In order to keep other people who are great and who aren’t as highly compensated, I need to show I respect their contributions the way I respect executive contributions. So they get the same bonuses.”

Funding for new businesses and for business growth and expansion was another topic, and Kathy Sherbrooke, president and co-founder of Circles in Boston, and Nina Vaca, founder and CEO of Dallas-based Pinnacle Technical Resources, weighed in. Sherbrooke was one of the only venture-backed winners in this year’s competition, while Vaca has built her company up over many years with the support of family and friends. Both emphasized that venture funding can help a company hit the ground running and expand quickly. With those resources, however, come strings: Founders have less control and, in essence, must answer to their venture backers. More importantly, most venture backers require an exit strategy before they invest so they reap a high return on their investment. For Vaca, the trade offs were too high. “I’m building my company for the long term,” she said. “I’m in it for the long haul and I want to have the freedom to make the difficult near-term decisions that you sometimes have to make in order to ensure that lifetime success of the company.”

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For Sherbrooke, however the trade offs were worth it because she and her co-founders want to build a global marketing company very quickly. “You lose control in many ways, so you have to ensure that the investors you do partner with are really in your corner — that they believe in you and your management team, and that you have the same goals,” she says.

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