Sheila Ronning is the CEO and founder of Women in the Boardroom, a professional membership organization providing C-Suite and senior-level executive women with the tools, knowledge and connections to prepare them for corporate board service.
Sheila Ronning is a true founder and entrepreneur, known for expertly wearing many hats and this is exemplified in how she runs her organization. Ronning remains deeply involved in the day-to-day business of running the organization, she’s also the strategist, head of innovation and customer experience, and remains personally available to her membership, partners and connectors and is the last one to turn out the lights each night.
How It All Started & How Does One Start: Feedback from Sheila Ronning
Considered a trailblazer among her peers, Ronning was the first to form such an organization in 2002 as an event and networking organization, when the absence of women in boardrooms was not in the forefront of the corporate conscience the way that it is today. Which also presented various challenges but also some unique opportunities for an untapped market. In 2011, Women in the Boardroom became the membership organization it has developed into today, meeting a key need in the marketplace to support women with an individualized and proven process to obtaining corporate board positions and, I am very proud to say that over 50% of the membership sit on corporate boards today.
Below Ronning delves deeper on the challenges she overcame as well as lessons learned and tips that she acquired on her journey to success.
Plan to Work Hard, And I Mean HARD!
When I started out, I had no real money and I was putting the revenue directly back into the business to keep it growing. Additionally, this was before the days of the internet, so networking was much harder and time-consuming. It was WORK. And I mean nonstop work. But that is what you need to do if you want to see your dream come to fruition and so that is what I did.
First Things First: Identify A Need
Women in the Boardroom has evolved over the years; it started almost 18 years ago as an annual event in Minneapolis, where I’m originally from. I was working in marketing and public relations and originally built a very successful business-to-business networking event for small business owners, which was a key marketplace need I identified through my work As I continued to grow that business, women executives whom I was meeting, were expressing to me the need for professional networking events focused on women leadership and helping women enter board service.
That was the genesis of creating networking events in which we educated senior executive level women on topics such as what is the job of a corporate director, what happens behind those closed doors, networking opportunities and how to get that seat at the table. Fortunately, Minnesota is home to many large companies – Best Buy, Target, Carlson, and 3M to name a few – and there were several women pioneers who had been serving as corporate directors for years who wanted to help and volunteered to speak at our events.
Over the next few years, we expanded nationally and by 2010 we were holding events in 15 cities.
As the events grew and we got feedback from the women attendees I kept hearing “This is a great program and while the information is invaluable and I am making valuable connections, I am very serious about getting onto a corporate board and ready to serve, but I need more individualized information, and advice.”
So, after nine years of networking with and listening to the 200+ corporate directors who spoke at our events, as well as the executive senior-level women who were attending who aspired to get onto corporate boards, I had gathered a tremendous amount of information with consistent themes, processes and proven strategies that would truly benefit women seeking board service, that no-one was offering in the marketplace. And as I envisioned what this new program would be, I also considered the financials. I am an entrepreneur and the business case for the kind of program, that supports women in obtaining their first second or even third board position, on a more individualized basis, could generate more revenue and be a more profitable business.
So, I took all of that information and experience from that prior 9 years and in 2011 created The Women in the Boardroom membership program, that consolidated all the years of best practices into the proven process that really works.
With the new business model set and having moved from Minneapolis to New York City for personal reasons, I created and launched the roadmap for women to obtain their seats in the boardroom.
Get Out There
We were still in the financial crisis and I was affected by the economic downturn as were many others in corporate and professional life, which is our target. But as someone who had built a business on creating communities, I realized my method for dealing with the situation would be slightly different than most due to my business model being such a unique one.
I decided to hunker down and do what I knew best, which was the network. For example, I knew a woman from the events that we’d been doing in New York, so I reached out to her, and she introduced me to one person and then that person introduced me to another, and so on. I always followed up, and I also attended everything. At first, I felt uncomfortable and was nervous that these New Yorkers wouldn’t accept this Midwestern girl, but I knew I had to get out there and be myself. And of course, as it turns out, most everyone in NYC is from somewhere else and this city is made up of amazing people who want to help, both women and men.
Not the New Kid on The Block Anymore
The world has changed since 2011, women have started to have greater presence on corporate boards, though we are not at all close to gender equity, women’s leadership is certainly a cultural focus , states are legislating that women be elected to corporate boards our membership, growth and success in supporting women on their journey to board service continues to soar.
And as women’s leadership in the boardroom and at the most senior executive levels continues to be in our cultural lexicon, there are naturally more organizations popping up who are focusing on similar issues. People often ask me how I deal with these new organizations in the market today and how it has affected my organization. I actually love it! The presence of these other organizations allows for me to learn from them as well, keep the conversation going, expand the community of women, but it also makes me work even harder to be the best of the best!
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