business

It Sure Ain't The Ladies' Auxiliary

The Committee of 200 quietly gives a big hand to women execs

Marcia Radosevich was just looking for money. She approached Boston venture capitalist Jacqueline Morby in 1990, hoping to win financing for HPR Inc., her fledgling health-care software outfit. Morby didn't come through with cash. What she ultimately did offer, though, proved far more valuable.

Two years after their first meeting, Morby nominated Radosevich for the Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year Award, given by a group called the Committee of 200 (C200). As the winner, Radosevich received a one-year membership and unlimited access to the committee's roster of startlingly accomplished women executives. "It was like a tutorial in how to take a company public," Radosevich says. Members advised her on innovative financing techniques and what to expect at HPR's first road show; one woman who ran a similar technology company offered her home phone number, to be dialed day or night. HPR blossomed, and Radosevich herself joined C200 as a full-fledged member.

MORE ACTIVISM. The Committee of 200 is perhaps the most high-powered organization you've never heard of, a 15-year-old sorority of women entrepreneurs and corporate executives ranging in age from 36 to 87. Valerie B. Salembier, publisher of Esquire, and Wanda Ferragamo, president of Italian shoe company Salvatore Ferragamo, are members; so are Wall Street legend Muriel Siebert and Christie Hefner, the CEO of Playboy Enterprises.

In 1982, while raising money for the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), bank Vice-President Susan Davis targeted many of the nations' most successful female business leaders. Intrigued by the breadth of their achievements, she recruited some to form a national network, where members would share ideas and business opportunities. To qualify, executives had either to run their own companies with revenues of at least $5 million--since raised to $10 million--or head a corporate division with $50 million or more in sales.

Davis and other founders thought it would be years before they discovered 200 women who met the criteria. In fact, the group reached that plateau in 1984. Today, membership is close to 400, reflecting a boom in entrepreneurship that, NAWBO estimates, each day sees 1,600 women starting a new business. As its numbers have swelled, the committee has evolved from an inward-looking support organization to something far more activist. Now, these leaders seek to identify and nurture more women like themselves--entrepreneurial risk-takers who go on to found successful startups or thrive among the corporate brass.

TRAVELING INSTITUTE. In 1989, the committee created a foundation, funded from member donations, devoted to outreach efforts, including four talks a year at leading business schools and an annual scholarship awarded to two women MBAs. In 1998, C200 will launch a traveling entrepreneurial institute, where members will offer not-for-credit seminars to supplement traditional MBA curriculums.

It's an impressive agenda for a group so low-profile that many members only learn of it when they're invited to join (yearly dues: $1,200). But this hardly is the local ladies' auxiliary. At regional and national meetings, members compare capital-raising strategies or talk about coping with cancer or the loss of a child. More than that, "we really promote each other in this group--you could say it's the good ol' girls network," says Nancy Peterson, CEO of Peterson Tool Co. When Camilla Dietz Bergeron, co-founder of the investment bank now known as Furman Selz, left to start an antique jewelry business, it was a supplier referral from a C200 member that "put the business on the map." Harriet Mouchly-Weiss, former president of Grey Advertising's GCI International unit, credits C200 with providing key financial guidance and contacts when she launched her own firm.

Indeed, many C200 members "have been stimulated to do new things with their lives," says venture capitalist Patricia M. Cloherty, president and general partner of Patricof & Co. That's the ideal committee members want to spread to B-school campuses. Often, their meetings with MBAs lead to offers of jobs and internships. The object, though, is higher-minded than that. Money, as Radosevich learned, isn't everything. Rather, exposure to experience, contacts, and ideas all help breed success.

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