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Camille Burns: “Diversity within Leadership”

My obligation is to make sure I am willing to have those tough conversations and speak openly. Nothing will change if we try to pretend things are not happening. We have all had to grapple with our own issues both personally and within our organizations. At the WPO, we have been working on developing increased […]

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My obligation is to make sure I am willing to have those tough conversations and speak openly. Nothing will change if we try to pretend things are not happening. We have all had to grapple with our own issues both personally and within our organizations.

At the WPO, we have been working on developing increased training and education for our Chapter Chairs as well as for our members. It’s important that leaders have the information they need to create diverse and inclusive environments within their organizations. We are also establishing an Impact for Change Committee. As we define the organization for the future, we need input and participation from diverse voices. We are involving women business owners who have a passion for creating a more diverse and inclusive space to work together to grow their businesses.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Camille Burns, CEO of the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO), the ultimate affiliation for successful women entrepreneurs (presidents, CEOs, managing directors) of privately held multimillion-dollar companies. The WPO’s mission is to accelerate business growth, enhance competitiveness, and promote economic security through confidential and collaborative peer-learning groups. The WPO represents more than 2,000 accomplished women entrepreneurs at the multimillion-dollar level who aim to increase their business success.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up outside of Chicago with two successful, hardworking parents. My mother is a Behavioral/Cognitive Neuroscientist and Speech Pathologist and was somewhat of a workaholic when I was growing up. That instilled in me the importance of women having careers. I always had a passion around women’s issues and was a bit of a feminist on the playground. Later, at NYU I took a lot of women’s study courses. When I found my way to WPO it was because I liked the idea of women being in business, but I had zero interest in the business itself. The love of business developed as I worked in this role and understood the impact that women-owned and led businesses had on the economy. Then I went on to get an MBA.

Is there a book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

What impacted me recently is the book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, a non-fiction book written by Malcolm Gladwell. The book focuses on the probability of improbable events occurring in situations where one outcome is greatly favored over the other. The book contains many different stories of underdogs who wind up beating the odds, the most famous being the story of David and Goliath. It resonated with me personally is because I am dyslexic. So are a lot of other high achievers — like famous trial lawyer David Boies, Richard Branson, and former Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn. You develop a certain resilience when you are used to not coming out on top and failing. Small business owners, particularly those led by women and people of color, are often the David’s and that really resonated with me.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I have always loved Shirley Chisholm’s quote “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” I am inspired by her strength and determination. As the first black woman to make a bid to run for the U.S., she battled many obstacles and did not back down. She reminds me of so many women business owners I have worked with over the years.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

One of the most important aspects of leadership is helping others achieve their goals. A good leader hires excellent people around her and puts employees and customers first. I also feel that to be a good leader, honesty and transparency are essential — even when you have made a mistake or need to change directions.

A leader must exude confidence without arrogance. Itis courageous to fail. A leader’s ability to change after mistakes or failures inspires trust and motivates a team. It is particularly important to be able to reset after a disappointing setback. You need to own what is not perfect. You also need to own that what you learned is a result of a failure.

As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I exercise a lot and that certainly helps. The social psychologist, author and speaker Amy Cuddy is known for promoting “power posing”, a self-improvement technique. I sometimes emulate that power pose to pump myself up before speaking to a large group. I also try to open my heart and feel grounded, with my feet firmly planted in the earth. For important calls, I take them standing up versus sitting. Because I am dyslexic, I do not like to read publicly so I must practice. I review what I want to say and repeat it out loud, walking around a hotel room or my apartment. I even rehearse out loud while I am putting on makeup.

Now let us move to the focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it is at now?

The pandemic highlighted deep-seated issues in this country. Economic disparities, unemployment and COVID-19 have disproportionately impacted people of color. We are also in the “you can’t hide” era of citizen journalism. People videotape acts of injustice and use social media to share them instantly around the world. This could not have happened 20 years ago and as a result, so much was hidden.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

In business, intentional action is crucial. We can talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion, but unless people act intentionally act, it is very hard to make changes.

You must have uncomfortable conversations. Leadership is about bringing them up, not pushing things under rug or turning a blind eye. My obligation is to make sure I am willing to have those tough conversations and speak openly. Nothing will change if we try to pretend things are not happening. We have all had to grapple with our own issues both personally and within our organizations.

At the WPO, we have been working on developing increased training and education for our Chapter Chairs as well as for our members. It’s important that leaders have the information they need to create diverse and inclusive environments within their organizations. We are also establishing an Impact for Change Committee. As we define the organization for the future, we need input and participation from diverse voices. We are involving women business owners who have a passion for creating a more diverse and inclusive space to work together to grow their businesses.

Only 3% of women-owned businesses generate more than 1 million dollars in revenue. Women of color account for 89% of the new businesses opened every day over the past year. Two programs we have developed over the years are:

· The FWPO Build Your Business program which offers a complimentary one-day education program for local women business owners with start-up and small businesses. WPO members representing successful, established businesses share business expertise and experiences and host one-on-one meetings with attendees. This program has provided inspiration to women with a small business that it is possible and achievable to grow their businesses to the WPO level.

· Even though I cannot yet reveal who made the list of the 50 Fastest-Growing Women-Owned and Led Companies, sponsored by American Express, the top ten is a diverse list. One of the reasons to publish this list is to demonstrate that many younger, women of color are growing significantly sized businesses. There are still many misperceptions around the size and scope of businesses owned by women.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Diversity creates different perspectives and points of view in business. Through the pandemic, many companies have had to reimagine and reinvent themselves, creatively re-thinking their products and services More diverse voices inside the company better position the company for innovation in post-COVID-19 world. Studies show that companies with a diverse board of directors are more profitable.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take to Truly Create an Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Business has a powerful opportunity to help transform society. At the WPO, we have developed a five-part plan to create an inclusive, representative, and equitable organization that supports business owners globally to do the same:

1. Create a WPO Impact for Change Advisory Committee — comprised of members and Chapter Chairs who are passionate about seeing and supporting change.

2. Diversity within Leadership — We will focus on increasing our racial and ethnic diversity at WPO — particularly in the Chapter Chair and leadership ranks. Diversity at the top of any organization is key to fostering innovation and creativity.

3. Diversity Within Membership — As a peer advisory organization, we know that the more diverse experience, perspectives, and expertise at the table will result in a more profound outcome. As an organization, we are working to expand our outreach to ensure that all women business owners are aware of the organization and its ability to help them manage and grow their businesses.

4. Training and Education

I believe training and educational programming are essential in creating a more inclusive and equitable society. To address issues head-on, everyone needs to understand the issues, whether it is unconscious bias or the business case for D&I. Business leaders also need to how to move forward, how to communicate effectively and how to support and connect with each other.

5. Programming

I see programming as such an important step moving forward. I also feel it is important to enlist the input and suggestions of others to develop that programming. We will work with our Impact for Change Committee to ensure we are providing the best subject matter experts to share unique and diverse perspectives in business.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

Resolved is a big word. I am very encouraged by what is happening now. This has been a painful time but has opened a dialog and forced business leaders to think about and address these issues. I see within our membership a real desire for information, education and resources on race, diversity, and inequality to support them as business leaders. I see many women looking to expand their networks beyond people who look like they do. Within our peer advisory chapters, discussions around race and society are being discussed. The women business owners I work with not push things under the rug or pretend this is not happening, they are addressing issues head-on. I believe when business leaders work to make a change, this is a huge step in the right direction.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

I would love to have a private meal with Oprah Winfrey.

How can our readers follow you online?

For more information visit www.womenpresidentsorg.com. Follow the WPO on Twitter @womenpresidents and Facebook @TheWPO.

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