We’re talking with Heidi Richards, who enjoys pushing herself as well as nudging others in new directions. She is the founder of www.WECAI.org an International chamber of commerce, per se, of 893 women on the web. She also runs www.WUNPublications.com; www.HeidiRichards.com; www.EdenFlorist.com; and www.WomenOfWisdom.com. While some women multi-task, Heidi multi-businesses.
MARY: We’ve found that this is one of the many “New Girls’ Clubs” that are starting up. When did WECAI begin?
HEIDI: My group has been around since August of 2003. We have redesigned it twice as the group evolved and now have 893 members. Half of the members are full fledged due paying members and half are basic or free members with limited access. We are currently in the process of redesigning it again to accommodate the greater needs. We are losing our rankings on the search engines because of those changes, but we needed to do it since our meetings are all virtual. We have phone conferences, email conferences and today was we hosted our first-ever webinar. About half of the women who attended today had never attended a webinar before. We’re not a social networking group where you can set up your own networking groups, however, our model is more like a chamber of commerce with different types of venues and different types of networking.
MARY: With so many other women’s groups popping up, why did you start this one?
HEIDI: The main reason was because I am an international speaker and while in Egypt I met about 30 women from all over the world each of whom I wanted to stay connected with. We started emailing back and forth and one thing lead to another when we decided to start a virtual organization. That started in January of 2002 and it took a year and a half to organize. Then it took another year to get the business plan in place and get a board of directors to help promote the organization in their country. While some groups are primarily in the US, our group is 50% US and 50% overseas. We have 45 countries represented in our membership. We started an outreach to International women who spoke English but found that many would like to do the same thing, but in their language. We’re now looking at translating our site to other languages to fulfill that need. That’s the kind of thing that our organization will be doing that will be unlike some of the other organizations. The big challenge in translation is the expense, so we’re looking for sponsors to help us out in that area. Our new site will be done by the end of June and after that we’ll start the translation process.
MARY: Considering the many different countries, how would you describe your core program if it’s not for social networking?
HEIDI: It’s really about how to network and do business online. For example if your site was more of an online brochure and you wanted to add an ecommerce element to your site, we would help you with that. We want to be able to help our members find whatever resources they need. We want to be the go-to organizations that will help them find exactly what they are looking for.
MARY: To help me understand it more, could you compare it to something offline? How is this like a chamber of commerce?
HEIDI: We’ll help you find the partners you need to do business with. Beyond that we’re looking at what kinds of things people need on an international level. For example group insurance or discounts on travel. We’re looking to partner with global companies so that we can offer their services to our members at a discount. Although there may be organizations that offer the same thing, but we want to be that one-stop-shop for all of it. That’s going to take some time to get into place because of our geographic differences.
MARY: How do you know which items to go for first? Are members asking for things specifically or is it part of a bigger plan that you have in mind?
HEIDI: I’m taking a leading role by asking members what they need. For example in the US we know that a majority of our members need inexpensive health insurance or house and auto insurance as well. You can get that by joining most any Chamber of Commerce, but you have to pay a lot to join the chamber first before you can have access. Our members won’t have the high initiation fees. I’ve been on the board of 4 Chambers of Commerce, so I understand why most members join and what they want out of it. What I’m learning is how an international chamber of commerce can work. There is no model, so we’re creating it.
MARY: So you would offer the same health insurance for someone in Saudi Arabia?
HEIDI: It would have to be specific to their country. We would approach companies who already provide insurance in an area and then find out if they would provide a group rate for our members. It may not be something that they do now, but that’s where we hope to get the word out and see if it’s possible. This is why we have our international board of directors to find out what is needed most in their region. Some countries have socialized healthcare, so for them health insurance isn’t a need.
MARY: What tipped you off that this organizational model was needed?
HEIDI: There are one-stop shops for US only groups, but not necessarily international ones. There could be, but I haven’t found it to be the case and I’m on line every day for 4-8 hours looking, asking and talking to people. We’re also going to offer an international directory of women-owned businesses and an international directory of Chambers of Commerce. In other words, we’re doing the work for people. In many cases this information may already be available online, but who wants to spend hours and hours looking these things up and compiling them?
MARY: What else would you have at your one-stop-shop besides insurances, directories of international members and partnership resources?
HEIDI: Monthly tele-seminars. We went from one a month to four a month and we’re starting full one-day summit meetings covering various topics. Our first summit is scheduled for Saturday July 29th from 10 am Eastern through 6 pm Eastern time. We are bringing in experts who will talk on “How to Create Wealth in Your Life.” That includes real estate purchases to buying stocks to running a business. and Participants will be able to ask questions during the presentations. We’re planning on having 12 of these a year in addition to our other monthly topics. Right now I’m asking other women to conduct the presentations and am taking myself out of the process. (That’s a hint for everyone looking for an audience of women to talk to.) We’re also starting up several blogs on HR, e-commerce and technology, marketing and others are in the works, but we’re not sure if we want to launch them all at once. We have so much going on, it’s finding the time to do it all.
MARY: How would you describe your member business experience?
HEIDI: It’s really across the board. There are women who are just starting in business and those who have been in business their whole life. I can’t say that there is a typical demographic or profile. I would say that the majority of those who have joined have been in business five years or longer. We’re also aligning with many women’s organizations that need to use our services. To do that we’ll be offering discounts to each of these women’s groups, I think the partnering and the collaboration is really what is going to make a difference for those groups and for my group.
MARY: Do you make money at this? You’re putting in an amazing amount of time besides running your other businesses.
HEIDI: Well, we’re at the break even point, which is always a good sign. Like any new business it’s going to take time to grow the business. Also, I’m a not for profit organization with a different set of goals for the membership. Right now I pay my vendors who are setting up the website and helping me get the online attributes in place and when everything is working as it should, then I’ll start taking a salary. First I have to make sure I’m offering what my constituents want first. That’s why we’ve been through several evolutions so far. When I started out I thought I knew what women wanted, but learned I knew what I wanted and I was a little ahead of the technological curve. I discovered that many women are just finding out what a blog is and some of the other social tools. My job is to make it easier for them, to hopefully earn their trust and have them experience the value of paying to join the organization at the full member rate.
MARY: You said you thought you knew what women wanted. What did you think they wanted to begin with and what did you find out?
HEIDI: I initially thought that women would just want to network with other women all over the world which is what I wanted to do. What I found out is that women wanted to know about the Internet and how to do business on the web and networking was an ancillary part of that. So what we did was re-position it as a resource. We are constantly looking for the best ways to conduct business. I read 40 magazines a month, 20 pertain directly with the Internet. They introduce me to ideas and concepts that I would not even think to search for. Then I go online and get more information. Can we help them promote their website? Yes. Can we find them affiliate programs that help them do that? Yes.
MARY: Where do you think you’ll be in ten years? What’s going to keep this organization unique?
HEIDI: I think having that global presence is where we’re going to differentiate from other groups. Others mention that they are international, but I don’t think that they will be as interconnected internationally as much as we hope to be. Again, we may have only 893 members but we have 45 countries represented. That’s a lot of countries. We also are going to maximize doing everything online and with other people orchestrating them. Right now, I’m putting everything together, but I hope to have a format whereby members can give presentations and also other organizations like NAFE can provide education to our members.
MARY: Do you allow men to join?
HEIDI: Absolutely! I have something special in mind for men that I think is going to be big, but I can’t talk about it now. Men want to do business with women and we don’t want to exclude them from doing it.
MARY: Sounds like you’re practicing the mission of your organization – be inclusive of all nations and people. Any last words?
HEIDI: We’re looking at this organization from a layperson’s point of view, for those who aren’t techno savvy and are just starting out who may not have an IT department at their disposal. Our goal is to make these changes in technology easy to understand, to give them the basics that they need to help them get past the start-up challenges and into making a profit and in the process meet interesting and “worldly” women along the way.