Women’s Chamber plots new strategy

Twenty years after a group of women formed their own local chamber of commerce, the Southern Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce finally is growing up.

In a bold move, the organization is making a play to double its membership and position itself as a leading organization with political and economic clout.

“Twenty years seems like a long enough time to be in startup mode,” said Meredith Masse, president of the Women’s Chamber and senior vice president of Innovative Career Consulting. “I feel like we are perfectly poised to go to that proverbial next level.”

The timing couldn’t be better, says Beth Roalstad, one of the newest Women’s Chamber board members and former executive director of the Women’s Resource Agency. In February, the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp. merged into one organization now called the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, which has about 1,500 members.

Business Alliance president and CEO Joe Raso repeatedly has said the merged organization’s mission includes “taking care of the companies and organizations already doing business in the region — small, medium and large businesses alike.”

However, some small-business owners are not happy about how this year has unfolded with the new organization, and they fear small business programming will go by the wayside, Roalstad said. The Women’s Chamber plans to seize the moment.

“There were some disenfranchised people because of that change,” Roalstad said. “If they are open to being part of the Women’s Chamber, they might find a new home . . . it really is a unique time. To jump on this is almost necessary.”

In the next three months the Women’s Chamber board members will call and visit CEOs, business leaders and business owners with the message that the organization is not just for women-owned businesses, but for all businesses that want to do business with women, said Linda Mojer, Women’s Chamber executive director. Across the country, women account for 85 percent of all consumer purchases, including everything from autos to health care.

“We are going to launch a push over the next quarter — reaching out to the entire community to let them know the Women’s Chamber has benefit to them,” she said. “We’d like to be double by next year.”

Since 2008, membership has grown from 75 to 210.

Women’s Chamber born

In some ways the current business landscape feels exactly as it did 20 years ago, said Jan Weiland, founder of the Women’s Chamber and vice president, investments of Cascade Investment Group.

Back then she was new to town. She was a small-business owner shopping for an organization where she could discuss business, particularly the issues women faced.

She took her idea of women’s business programming and a women’s chamber to the former Chamber of Commerce — but was told there was no need.

“We went off and started it anyway,” she said. “We really thought women wanted to meet other women and wanted to do it on a regular basis and meet around women’s issues.”

That was 1993. Around the same time, other community members also formed the Colorado Springs Black Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Springs Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. There still are hard feelings over the creation of a Women’s Chamber, Weiland said.

“I don’t think women should only be interacting with other women,” Weiland said. “We weren’t suggesting that was something we do exclusively.”

The Women’s Chamber received seed money from the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce and proceeded with women’s business programs. At the time, Colorado led the country in the formation of women-owned businesses. Today, women-owned firms are opening across the state at one-and-a-half times the rate of men-owned firms.

The Southern Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce, Weiland said, prided itself on being the first chamber in town to give awards to local women in business.

The organization turned a corner in 2008, when the Women’s Chamber board hired a part-time executive director. There was a shift in thinking from women business leaders needing each other to women business leaders being vital to the region’s economic growth. Women own 31.5 percent of businesses in El Paso County and it was time to start acknowledging that, Mojer said.

“It’s far more mainstream now for people to understand and accept that women are half the businesses, plus some,” Mojer said. “The more women come to understand that, the more they own it.”

Still, there are women who think the Women’s Chamber is purely a social group, Mojer said. But, the organization now promotes and markets its members — a move Mojer said gave the group more credibility. An email blast goes to 5,000 subscribers and the website receives about 500 daily views.

“I think the general perception is, ‘oh, just another networking group’ — [but] we don’t do drive-by networking,” Masse said. “We try to provide opportunities for people to build meaningful relationships that can help them professionally and personally.”

Looking ahead

Part of the new strategy for the Women’s Chamber includes its board members becoming more involved in other organizations including finding seats on boards such as the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, Regional Business Alliance and Downtown Development Authority.

“Our board of directors is going to step up and take on this responsibility to create a different sphere of influence,” Roalstad said.

There also will be a push for more involvement with nonprofit agencies, Roalstad said, along with an organized effort to host political and legislative panels, with dueling points of view.

“I would love for the (Women’s) Chamber to be included as a place where elected officials come to take a pulse of the community,” Roalstad said. “I don’t feel that has been a common role the Women’s Chamber. It was very definitely a role for the Greater Chamber.”

After the news late last year that the Greater Chamber would merge with the EDC, the Women’s Chamber briefly discussed dropping “Women” from its moniker to attract more small-business owners.

But the board felt strongly that women do business differently than men. They are more social. They like to network. They like to mentor and be mentored. They like to hear from women who have run successful businesses and have broken through the corporate glass ceiling. Those are the reasons the group formed, Weiland says.

Twenty years later, those needs have not changed, adds Weiland, who still is a member of the Women’s Chamber, but not on the board of directors.

“It really is fun to sit on the edge of the group lunch and think about all that is going on,” Weiland said. “There is such enthusiasm. The (Women’s Chamber) was a good idea. That has been well proven over the years.”

Men have always been welcomed to the Women’s Chamber, Mojer said, and some brave souls have ponied up membership dues and attended luncheons and awards banquets. A year from now, the audience at Women’s Chamber luncheons may look even more diverse, she said.

“We want all small businesses in the region to know we are here for them,” Mojer said. “We are a viable Chamber that delivers the same benefits and services as any Chamber.”

Southern Colorado Women’s Chamber Political Engagement Panel Luncheon

11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 16 at The Warehouse restaurant.

Panelists include:

Lindy Conter — American Assn. of University Women

Christy Le Lait — Peak Dems executive director

Julia Lindahl — Colorado Springs Republican Women Anna Lopez — League of Women Voters

Kristy Milligan — Citizens Project executive director

Details and tickets at www.scwcc.com

Women and the workforce

In Colorado:

Women make up 64 percent of the workforce

Women own 29.2 percent of all businesses

Women employ 140,500 workers

In El Paso County:

Women own 31.5 percent of businesses

Sources: Women’s Business Development Center; U.S. Census Bureau; and The State of Women Owned Business Report.