I am woman hear me roar... in numbers too small to ignore?

Two statistics inspired Naomi Whittel, CEO and founder of Gainesville, Fl.-based Reserveage Organics, to launch Developing and Advancing Women in Naturals (DAWN): Women represent a mere 1 percent of CEOs, though they’re responsible for nearly 80 percent of (increasingly health-conscious) purchasing decisions.

“As a female CEO with more than a decade of experience in the natural products industry, I certainly know the challenges that women face in business today,” said Whittel. “I realized we needed a forum in which women could come together to share their strengths, accomplishments, mistakes and ideas, and empower ourselves as a collective force.”

Through seasonal newsletters and annual conferences (the first is tentatively set for spring 2012), DAWN will provide resources and networking opportunities for women in the natural products industry, while improving sustainable and socially responsible business practices.

“Executives can help upstarts and ambitious young women, and at the same time, we can all assist those less fortunate through collective philanthropic initiatives,” she said. 

The dawn of DAWNNaomi Whittel

Launched at Natural Products Expo East 2011 in Baltimore, DAWN already has secured 1,000 members, which Whittel hopes will reach 3,000 by the end of 2012. Her ultimate goal? To increase the percentage of female executives from 1 percent to 4 percent in three years.

Ambitious, yes, but Reserveage’s own growth has been impressive since its launch in 2009. Annual sales have increased 64 percent from 2009 to 2010 and the company holds 30 percent of the resveratrol market share.

For Whittel, entrepreneurship and networking are critical to increasing the number of successful women executives in this industry and to gaining worthy recognition for their products.

“There is no denying the difficulty women face in achieving high-level positions in business, especially in larger corporations, which is why I advocate for women to become entrepreneurs,” she said. “When women start their own companies, based on their unique and individual interests and visions, they are better equipped to show the world what they are capable of, and to be judged on the merits of their products and their company alone.”

Women CEOs poised to succeed in naturals

According to Bridget Brennan, author of Why She Buys (Crown Business, 2009), women drive 80 percent of consumer spending—and much of their attention is now on the natural space; “cause marketing” and “green campaigns” find their strongest audience in women.

“Such concerns make the natural products industry ripe for our particular involvement, vision and leadership. So much is happening in the world today, and consumers are asking for more sustainable and ecological business practices,” said Whittel. “It only makes sense that the companies generating their products hold the same principles, and moreover, have something of a feminine mentality.”

Increasing the number of women in decision-making positions can help address a lingering problem: that most women consumers still feel misunderstood or ignored by marketers, according to Brennan. “Any company increases the chance of success if they have the culture of the customer represented on their team. We grew up in a culture of our own gender. There are nuances in our communication styles, we even have different meanings for different words,” she said.

Brennan points out that while women slightly dominate the work force, they’re still scarce in those senior level positions where large decisions are made. However, as women transition into more manufacturing leadership roles, they are in a good position to develop the marketing strategies that will successfully reach key natural products consumers and get more on board.

By women, for women

Melody Diaz Williams is among the first members of DAWN and has held positions in nearly all sectors of the natural products industry, starting in retail and moving into manufacturer marketing. For her, DAWN represents a new crop of cause-driven female leaders.

“I think that this industry is unique in the sense that we come together with a common vision that sets us all up for success," she said. "I’ve witnessed more grassroots involvement from women on policy issues that affect our supplements, our agriculture, and our cosmetics.

Another reason females are poised to shine in naturals: It’s generally women who find details of their products most interesting, said Brennan, while many natural products companies are focusing on delivering these messages of ethical sourcing, ingredient purity, and more.

“It strikes me that the natural products industry is wide open field for women to leave their mark,” said Brennan.