An Interview with Sheila Ronning: CEO & Founder of Women in the Boardroom

Kara M. Zone

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Recently, I had a chance to speak with Sheila Ronning, CEO and Founder of Women in the Boardroom. Currently, a membership club helping women achieve their highest professional goals, and obtaining a Board position, WitB has evolved with the changing economy, endured extreme challenges and moved forward with the hopes of expanding their message. They help women be role models while getting and staying at the top.

How does Women in the Boardroom speak to women?

Sheila Ronning (SR):

Women in the Boardroom encompasses:

- board and executive coaching to help assess member skill-set, critique board bio's and launch successful board campaigns.
- Career Boosting and in-person events are designed to connect aspiring and current board members, provide essential knowledge for leadership and corporate board service
- provides help becoming a better leader, getting connected with corporate board openings or receiving guidance while preparing for board service.

Where did you start out? What is your background?

(SR): Retail and Business Marketing. I started working at Best Buy when I was just out of college. I would go into a store and fix their problems with the idea that they were going to promote me. This went on for a while. My boss would keep the carrot dangling in front of my nose, and I jumped each time he would say "Go fix this store, then I will give you the position." It wasn't until I saw men getting promoted before me, I realized how much of a good ol' boy network it was. In hindsight it was a female thing. But I didn't see that because I was younger. These were the guys that I was training. I worked with it for a while and realized I wanted to be at the top. I finally just had to leave for my own career goals.

How does your background help you when working with your members at Women in the Boardroom?

(SR): I still see the issue today. When I am working with women, I hear them going through the same experience I had. I see the doubt in their eyes. I sympathize with them. Knowing I have come from a place where women weren't appreciated for their work, and moving past it shows there is a place for everyone.

If you don't have your failures, you can't have successes. We all go through all of those little funky periods - those rough times. My Best Buy experience was rough, but I had to keep moving forward.

What were the challenges when founding Women in the Boardroom?

(SR): Getting the word out. After founding Women in the Boardroom in 2002, there was a lack of resources to let women know we were out there. Women wanted our information, we just weren't sure how to get it to them. When I decided to start an annual event, it helped catapult Women in the Boardroom to a new level. Finding the funding for the convention was extremely time consuming.

We marketed to the idea we were spotlighting women on boards. We had women tell their stories of how they got to the top. The event we received an audience of 600 people, all of whom were here to listen and learn because they wanted it too. And it worked.

Around 2011, I had to change course. A couple of things happened, first the financial crisis. Companies were far more reserved with their money, and their supporting their Board members in extracurricular resources were drying up. Our sponsorship's dried up too. Second, I had women coming up to me, telling me "This is great information, but I'm really serious about getting on a corporate board. We need to do this more than once a year."

I changed the business plan, moved to New York and Women In the Boardroom became a membership based website. The easier access allowed for us to help women individually get into the boardroom. The first year we would figure out what a woman needed. The second year we assessed their skill set. This helped them (and us) to articulate what they could specifically bring to their board. We incorporated the information into their board bio while building their regular network.

The amazing thing is, once we became membership oriented, we started getting contacted about board openings. We aren't even a job search site. I think that is really amazing. It shows our hard work is paying off.

What is your view on women and men working besides one another?

(SR): There should always be diversity - we want women to be serving on boards, but we need to have a mix of people. It helps keep an open space for ideas. Women and men are different, it is what it is. It is not good or bad. What I do see is doubt. Doubt is something women need to overcome. Women won't call themselves an expert. I didn't even start calling myself an expert until someone else called me an expert first.

This is a good story on the difference between men and women:

I saw an extremely accomplished woman being interviewed. Her husband was sitting besides her and when the interviewer spoke to her about breastfeeding (as she had just recently had a baby) "You've got to be a breastfeeding expert by now." The woman shook her head no and said "I'm no expert. I had issues with each one of my children." The husband leaned over his wife and said "What do you need to know? I watched."

Men aren't afraid to call themselves experts. It's just something women picked up along the way. It's not true and it's okay to call ourselves an expert.

In 2012 Forbes Women wrote an article summarizing your ten most important steps to becoming a women in the boardroom. "Work to get on a government commission or committee, whether local, county, state or national." How will this open the door for women who wants to go straight to the top?

(SR): People have different opinions on what helps you advance into a corporate board room. First, I want to say I never want women to stop serving on non-profit boards because if they do, our country would be in a really bad spot. Charitable work is a great thing. Working on a government commission or social committee helps in a few ways, if it is a leadership role, this will give you experience. (If you are going to join a committee, it has to be a leadership role). And, make sure men are at the table. The committee you are on has to be a networking community. This will give a woman a chance to get her ideas out and have them be heard, and heard by the right people.

Where do you see Women in the Boardroom moving toward the future?

(SR): We are working now with our VIP members on a new platform. Through this they will be able to help one another with connections. We hear time and time again that your 1st board seat is attained through a personal network. We are also working on growing our membership. Numbers are our greatest strength.

What advice can you offer for finding success?

(SR): Success doesn't always mean you are making money, it means different things to different people. I view myself as successful because I am doing something I love. Challenges can be a great thing. When challenges come up find a new way to do it.

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