Ann Clarke’s life-long vision has been to help women become successful in business: when women are financially prosperous, they have better choices! Throughout her 40-year career as an award-winning photographer, writer, marketing consultant, professional speaker and event planner, Ann has brought together resources to help her clients become outrageously successful.
Ann is most proud of her work with youth, and for nine years led an entrepreneurial mentoring program for high school girls in four cities in Northern Colorado. This program brought together hundreds of women business owners with high school girls who wanted hands-on experiences in owning their own business.
Today her organization, Colorado Women of Influence LLC, sponsors master-mind events, educational workshops, networking events, an “emerging leader” mentoring program, and an annual Gala - all packed with GR8 ideas from successful women who can't wait to share their knowledge and expertise with others.
In this interview, Ann shares her entrepreneurial experience as veteran in the industry. Her mission is to gather wildly successful women in business to recognize and celebrate their hard work. Ann also shares interesting pain points in her journey and how her passion fuels her organization.
Ann's biggest piece of advice to all of you who are starting a business:
Do your research, check out your competition and think of coop-etition, not competition and have referrals.
To learn more about COWOI and the 'Women of Vision', follow Ann on Twitter!
Why did you start Colorado Women of Influence, LLC? Can you tell me a little bit about your business and what you do?
My whole career has been based on the premise that people do business with people they know, so I helped create “personal promotion” marketing programs for my clients. My goal was to help strangers feel as if they knew my client, by building my client’s pets, hobbies, charities and community involvement into their marketing programs.
As my clients achieved a very high career level, they discovered that traditional clubs, Chambers and networking groups did not meet their needs. They tired of having people say, “I’d like to pick your brain…” They were frustrated by being the most successful person in the room. They were concerned that they didn’t know enough women at their level of success whose opinion they respected.
And as women, their needs extended beyond the boardroom. When I sold my marketing business and decided I didn’t want to hop on another plane to speak to an audience hundreds of miles away, I knew I wanted to make a difference in my own back yard. I was determined to create the kind of organization that my friends & clients told me was missing in their professional lives.
Is there a competitive advantage that you have over the rest? How did you find it and ‘niche down’?
Absolutely! Since I was well-known for being an advocate for women in business as well as doing business with people – women – we know, I had an authentic voice. My reputation for helping others was recognized when I was honored as one of the “People Who Make A Difference,” “Outstanding Women in Business,” “Coloradoans Making a Difference,” “Professional Women Supporting Professional Athletes,” an “Outstanding Service Award” from the Women’s International Network and as a member of the Honorary Board of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.
Therefore, I had credibility and name recognition that helped people believe that whatever I created would succeed.
How do you balance life and work to remain connected and available for your loved ones? Any advice for me?
I only take on new clients or volunteer work if I can say “yes” to these three questions: 1) Is it good for my business? 2) Is it good for me personally? 3) Is it good for my family?
Personal tips include focus on creating experiences with family, not buying “stuff.” It’s easy to live richly without being rich if you focus on it! I also have an office downtown, and when I shut that door to go home, I also shut off my phone. That way WORK is Work and FAMILY is FAMILY.
In your experience, what is the best way to find your ideal customer? Are there any mistakes that our readers can learn from?
On a personal note, the nice thing about being self-employed is that you can choose your clients, and fire those with whom you are not compatible.
I purposely set out to create a community of supportive colleagues at an executive level, women who understand the challenges at our elite stage of business. I also wanted to provide a safe atmosphere of absolute integrity, confidentiality and trust. By creating Vision and Mission Statements, and putting them in writing on my website for all to see, I automatically eliminated potential customers whose values do not resonate with mine.
In addition, my organization values supporting our members unconditionally so we created a Pledge of Ethics to clarify what our expectations were for our members, as well as a Confidentiality Agreement so our members would understand the seriousness of our culture.
Is there a type of marketing that has worked amazingly for Colorado Women of Influence, LLC? If so, how did you stumble upon it?
Because I tapped into the frustration experienced by professional women whose careers were at a very high level, I asked potential members what THEY wanted in an organization, and I created it.
They wanted, 1) Membership by referral only with 2) Qualifications to be met in order to become a member. As a result, we became known as “The CEO Club for women in business.” Women referred their colleagues and friends and no other marketing was needed.
As a business owner, what is your greatest fear and how do you keep it under control or harness it?
Succession. When the time comes for me to retire, what happens to my business/organization? Do I make it a non-profit, run by a board? Do I sell it and hope the inclusive culture I’ve created with be carried on by the new owner?
My challenge is similar to that of every entrepreneur. I have created more than a business – I’ve created my legacy and I am concerned that it not only outlives me but grows and thrives!
How did you find the time and money to get Colorado Women of Influence, LLC off the ground? Any advice for entrepreneurs with minimal time or resources?
Months before Colorado Women of Influence launched, I got together with trusted colleagues and asked them what they thought about the organizations available to them. Then I hosted several focus groups, inviting highly successful women. I asked what was missing, and if I built it, would they come.
I asked their opinions and insights, and I listened. Once I discerned there was a need for a new women’s organization, I sold Board of Directors seats. Women paid to be in a leadership position and perceived as a Founding Member. That paid for all the start-up expenses and kept the entire first year debt-free.
These women got to create the culture, the Vision & Mission Statements, the qualifications for membership, and even set the pricing. When we finally launched four months later, I sold regular Annual Memberships, with yearly renewals.
Who has been your greatest influence as an entrepreneur? How did they shape your business?
My Members and my Advisory Council (Board of Directors). Because they are truly elite – at the top of their games, wildly successful – I value their ideas & insights. And I ask them regularly for their good advice!
I NEVER take anything “personal,” especially criticism. I learned to be flexible, adaptable and willing to change things up, all in order to be relevant and a useful resource to my members.
What do you consider the biggest milestone that you have hit with your business? What was the number one thing you did you get there?
Being able to create a Woman of Vision Gala in our second year. I wanted very much to host a different sort of gala – not a fund-raiser, but a true celebration of the accomplishments of women.
Our membership grew so quickly, we were able to pull off our first gala 8 years ago. Today, we have brought over 100 amazing women from my community up on our stage to hear our applause. They came from all segments: government, medicine, non-profits, academia, sports, authors, speakers – even a high school Junior!
All were “Women of Vision” in their own way, and it was wonderful to honor their hard work and accomplishments. And yes, a gala is definitely a lot of work! But by asking my members to help, we pulled it off by enlisting the aid of dozens of others.
What are the top 3 pieces of advice that you would give someone starting a business in Colorado? What do they need to know from the beginning?
- Do your research: Is there truly a need for the product or service you want to sell? Focus groups are worth their weight of gold because you do not “assume” what your potential customers want!
- Check out your competition: Is someone already doing/making/selling what you intend to pitch? If someone already had your GR8 idea, can you combine your efforts and become even stronger together than separately? Think coop-etition, not competition.
- Remember that people do business with people they know, and they give referrals to people they like. Make sure your marketing (social media, display, website, how you look when you leave your house) projects the image you want 24/7. You want people to say, “He/she is just like me!”