'First, we make sure we have the right tools, the right people, the right environment. It takes time, but eventually that fire will grow, and you keep feeding it,' says CEO Barb Smoot.

A group that makes the case for more women in the executive ranks—and offers them training and contacts to get there—is rippling outward toward a national presence.

Women for Economic and Leadership Development, which compiles an annual Leadership Census to hold businesses and nonprofits in its Central Ohio base accountable, has started chapters in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Charleston, West Virginia, since 2016 with an eye toward an additional one to two chapters each year. New groups are in the works in West Virginia, Charlotte, Dallas and Southern California. There’s also a national e-chapter whose members connect online.

“There are a couple different ways you see organizations approach growth,” says WELD CEO Barb Smoot. “There’s the scatter-seed approach: You throw all the seeds out and hope that some of them come up. Ours is more like starting a fire. First, we make sure we have the right tools, the right people, the right environment. It takes time, but eventually that fire will grow, and you keep feeding it.”

That feed-the-fire approach also could describe how WELD has gone about its core mission of getting more women in executive offices and board rooms. Since 2003, the organization has made the case of inclusion being good for business, and it also has helped women prepare for leadership positions to negate age-old excuses from corporate leaders guarding the status quo.

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“When (WELD’s founders) looked out around the leadership landscape in Columbus, they only saw about three or four women, and it was the same three or four women,” Smoot says. “Those three or four women were pretty tapped out. They were the ones getting asked to sit on this or do that, and of course they sometimes had to say no. Then the response was: ‘Well, we asked women, and they couldn’t do it.’ They forgot about the other half-a-million women here.”

Remember when Barb Smoot was named small nonprofit CEO of the Year? We do. You can read all about it right here.

Research from Catalyst, a global nonprofit with the same goal as WELD, has found that companies with the best records on gender diversity in their executive ranks are more profitable. They also have fewer legal problems and are less often caught up in controversies such as shareholder fights.

WELD’s annual Central Ohio Leadership Census, issued annually since 2011, has chronicled both progress and stagnation. The most recent survey, released last year, found more women in CEO and other executive-level roles and more women on corporate boards. But only in three categories—healthcare/hospital system executive officers, nonprofit executive officers and nonprofit CEOs—did women’s ranks come close to half. In several, notably the percentage of women in corporate executive-level positions, numbers barely changed at all.

“You can’t just go, ‘Change!’ It’s learning,” says Lisa Shuneson, managing partner of Whalen & Co. CPAs in Worthington and a member of WELD’s national board. “I came into the workplace right after Gloria Steinem. I didn’t feel that bias as much as the previous generation probably did. I think my daughter probably feels it even less.”

WELD National Chapter Management Officer Deepa Kellar says new chapters choose their own direction. In Cleveland, she says, the chapter focuses on leadership development. In Charleston, WELD members want to focus on civic issues and lend their expertise to economic development efforts, addressing the opioid crisis and improving education.

WELD hosts monthly webinars for all members and a monthly leadership series in Columbus—August focused on when it’s the right time to make a career move.

Chapters in Columbus, Cleveland, Charleston and Pittsburgh have monthly gatherings for executive women on topics such as leading a corporate turnaround, intergenerational workforce management and nonprofit board service. There are special series for young professionals, networking events for all members and annual events that include a national leadership conference.

Networking has become a bigger focus in recent years, Smoot says, because “it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.”

“We used to focus on the basics of board governance, but women know that,” she says. “What they need are access, sponsors.

“For the people who say they are all about women’s leadership, my question is, so when you’re in that board room, how many women have you helped get to the table? What are the actions that you’ve taken? If you need help with those actions and ideas for those actions, come to WELD.”