When Camille Burns joined the Women Presidents Organization (WPO) in 2000, she was fresh out of New York University and energized about her new role as program assistant. Now, 23 years later, she’s still passionate about the WPO—and hard at work making the nonprofit a valuable resource for women presidents, executives, leaders and entrepreneurs. Comprising 2,000-plus members and nearly 140 chapters that meet monthly across 10 countries, it provides a professional environment for women to seek business advice and feedback from a village of noncompetitive peers.
“When you look at women-owned businesses, only 4% of them generate over a million dollars,” Burns says. “When I started at WPO, that number was 2%. So we’ve seen a lot of progress with women taking companies public and women in the C-suite running Fortune 500 companies—but we have a long way to go.”
Burns spoke with SUCCESS about the road that led her to the top of Women Presidents Organization and her hopes for the future of all women entrepreneurs.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about your background before you started at the Women Presidents Organization.
Camille Burns: I grew up in Chicago, and I went to Regina Dominican High School. I am dyslexic, so my mom ended up sending me to a Catholic school, so I’d have smaller class sizes. Then, I went to NYU; years later, I got an MBA from Baruch College. While I was at NYU, I worked in human resources at a law firm. And at the end of that, I decided I really wanted to work for a women’s organization because I’d taken a lot of gender studies courses. So, I looked for a job, and this [program assistant] one popped up. And, at the time 23 years ago, it was a tiny organization—about 200 members and only a handful of chapters around the U.S. It’s been great for me to be part of this journey of growing the organization. I honestly had zero interest in business, but I liked the idea of women in leadership positions.
How does WPO help women in executive-level positions network with peers and mentors?
CB: Women can always go to networking events and build a community of women entrepreneurs, but the nice thing about organizations like WPO is that you can step into a ready-made group of women—ones who understand what you’re going through and have had similar issues and challenges.
What life lessons have you applied to your professional career?
CB: The biggest lesson I learned is from having a learning disability. It taught me to build up other skills, to realize that I’m not going to be good at everything. Now, as an adult, it’s easy for me to accept what I’m good at and what I’m not good at, and then surround myself with people who have skills better than mine.
Are there professional vulnerabilities that disproportionately impact women?
CB: Research shows that impostor syndrome is real. Even among really successful women running multimillion-dollar companies. She might feel like, “Am I really the right person for this? Do I deserve this?” We have to acknowledge and address that.
There are so many equity gaps in the workplace: gender, racial, age. What can entrepreneurs do to close them?
CB: We all need to work harder to enhance the profile of women. I see the younger generation of women being more comfortable asking for more of their career, so that’s hopeful. And the gender equity gap is just one. There is also a significant racial equity gap, and that is worse for women. For example, it is hard enough for women to access capital. Then, you find that research on minority groups shows it is 10 times as challenging for them.
Can you talk about how women at the executive level often get pulled in too many different directions?
CB: With all the demands on a woman president’s time, something has to give. And when you join a group like WPO, you’re committed to showing up. That’s an opportunity for women to get out for a few hours and escape everyone needing them. It’s healthy to be around peers you can learn from. Other women will have workaround solutions for extremely busy lives, because women still have more of the burden outside the office and in their personal lives. Juggling all of that is challenging, but you still have to do things for you.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo courtesy of Women Presidents Organization.