After almost a decade with the New Jersey Association of Women Business Owners (NJAWBO), Paula Gould is ready for retirement. She will step down as executive director in May.

Since 2003, when she first joined the group as a member, Gould has helped the organization to develop and change. And while efforts to increase membership rolls has remained a problem in the last few years of an economic downturn, public awareness of the organization and its statewide prestige and influence have certainly grown under her leadership.

Gould joined NJAWBO shortly after leaving New York City and the corporate life in favor of entrepreneurship. Her corporate experience includes 13 years as an insurance broker, first with Willis Group Holdings, and then with Marsh & McClennan. When she “took a package” in 1999 she had worked her way up through the system from secretary to senior vice president. “I don’t think you could do that today,” she says.

Gould attended Kutztown University as a history major but left school when a job opportunity presented itself. She later received a CPCU (chartered property casualty underwriter) from St. John’s University.

While Gould’s family background didn’t particularly prepare her for a career in insurance, it did set her on the path to entrepreneurship. Her father was a retail florist. “I grew up being told I could do anything I wanted to do,” she says. When she left Marsh & McClennan it seemed only natural to her to open her own business, so she founded her own insurance and risk management consulting practice.

During the business’ first two years she attended meetings at every area chamber of commerce and dozens of networking events in search of clients. Then one day she saw a newspaper announcement for a class titled, “Are You an Entrepreneur?” sponsored by NJAWBO. She took the class and the lessons she learned helped her take her business to the next level. She joined NJAWBO and soon became involved as a member and volunteer both at the chapter and state level.

Gould had been a member of the organization for about a year when she began working part-time at the organization’s office, then located in Hamilton.

She took the job of director of administration with the understanding from the board that it was not really what she wanted to do. “I told them then that I wanted to be executive director,” she says. “I didn’t want to just be a clerk.”

At the time, however, the organization had recently had a bad experience with its first attempt to hire an executive director, and the board was leery of putting anyone into the position. But Gould saw possibilities to take NJAWBO places it couldn’t go with only an all-volunteer board.

“We needed the continuity that having someone in a full-time position brings,” she says. For example, state officials or corporate sponsors would start to develop a relationship with a board member who would no longer be in a position of authority a year later. “We needed a full-time person to handle the care and feeding of all of our relationships.”

Gould has volunteered for several professional organizations, including the International Alliance for Women and two years as president of the Association for Professional Insurance Women. But working for other business owners at NJAWBO took its toll on Gould’s firm. “For the last two years of my business I was so full-time with NJAWBO that I had no time to bring revenue in to my own company,” she says. She closed her business and in 2007 was named full-time executive director for NJAWBO.

“I could see so much potential for the organization, but not everyone saw what I saw,” she says. It took time for her to convince the board of her vision. Her proudest accomplishment, she says, is that “I’ve proved NJAWBO could be what I thought it could be.”

#b#Signature event#/b#. One of Gould’s most visible accomplishments has been NJAWBO’s annual Procurement Expo. Held each year in the spring (most recently on April 14), Procurement Expo has become the group’s signature event.

But it didn’t start out that way. In fact, the first year she worked with the event was a lesson in what not to do. At the end of that day she sat down and talked with some of the corporate people who had attended. “They said, ‘We’re never coming back to this event because most of your members aren’t certified. They don’t know our industries and they don’t seem serious about business,’” Gould says. “It was an eye-opener.”

Instead of giving up on the expo, Gould decided to change and improve it. The next year she arranged partnerships with other organizations that had more members with state or federal certifications and also began a push within NJAWBO for its members to become certified themselves. This year NJAWBO had more than 70 exhibitors ranging from pharmaceutical corporations to NJTransit. More than 400 people attended. Prior to the event there was also a telephone conference to help members learn more about certification and how to make the most of the expo. During the event a variety of workshops helped attendees learn everything they need to know about obtaining contracts with state and local governments as well as larger corporations.

The lesson learned? “It takes a long time to build relationships of trust so that people will turn to you,” she says. It’s advice that works for the director of a state-wide organization as well as for individual business owners. “You have to learn to partner and to make alliances.”

#b#Don’t over-commit#/b#. Never over-promise what an organization and its members can do. “If you take on too much at once, something will flounder and that doesn’t look good for the organization,” she says. “It is better to take on one or two new projects at a time.”

A new project in the works for several years at NJAWBO is a corporate mentoring program, which had its first full year in 2010. Members are paired with corporate mentors who help them learn about a wide variety of business practices such as customer service, marketing, or distribution control.

“It has been a great success for both the corporate sponsors and the business owner members,” she says. “Both sides learn from each other. The corporate world and the world of small business speak different languages. This program helps people learn how to approach and talk to each side more easily.”

Be a decision maker. “When in doubt, lead,” Gould says. “Take the bull by the horns and make a decision. Don’t wait for everyone to weight in on everything that needs to be done. In an organization of 1,000 members you can never have total consensus.”

She adds that in an organization of that size there are also people willing to volunteer if asked. “Don’t try to do it all. Delegate tasks and give the volunteer the authority to handle it and to make decisions,” she says.

Myth and reality. The old saying that “all publicity is good publicity” is just not true. “As executive director I always want my organization to appear in the best light, but that also means that everything must be the true and correct facts,” she says. “Never exaggerate and make sure that everything you say is correct.”

NJAWBO has not yet appointed a successor for Gould, and while her last day in office in early May, she is not sure when her replacement will be hired. NJAWBO recently hired an organizational development consultant to look at the organization and help it to grow “in the right directions,” she says. “It’s come at the perfect time. I don’t know who the new executive director will be, but I do know they will be working for a strong organization that is filled with members who are great leaders.”

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