The exquisite beachfront home of Elizabeth Benham is filled with mementos from her world travels: A silver mirror from Turkey, a carved statue from Brazil and a desk set from Taiwan are just a handful of the physical memories that line her shelves and serve as a reminder of an extraordinary life. But this home is more than a treasure trove of keepsakes, it is the global headquarters of the International Federation of Business & Professional Women (BPW), a networking organization with active clubs in more than 94 countries. Now in its 80th year, the BPW has previously had only three international presidents from the United States, with Elizabeth holding the prestigious position of being the fourth.
I was introduced to Elizabeth in her Babylon home where she was hosting a meeting of the Enterprising & Professional Women – Long Island (EPW-LI), the local chapter of the BPW headed by Virginia Russell, who had invited me to attend. After a warm and effusive greeting from Elizabeth we excused ourselves from the crowd and settled into a quiet spot at a table nestled in beach sand in front of her home. “Most women want to make a difference,” says Elizabeth. Over the next hour, I would learn that whether or not this statement was accurate, it certainly rang true about Elizabeth.
Born in South Africa, Elizabeth emigrated to the United States in the 70’s via Canada. She was a registered nurse/midwife trained in high-risk obstetrics, but found that she needed additional courses to practice in the US. So, Elizabeth, always ready for a challenge, embarked on a new career path, and because of her dynamic persona became a highly successful importer of roofing panels, with her roster of clients including Georgia Pacific and Home Depot. “I eventually sold my business and stayed on for three years during the transition, taking the retail side from $9 million to $22 million,” she says proudly.
Taking her entrepreneurial spirit a step further, she tried her hand at inventing, and won a gold medal at an inventors show in 2000. Her invention, the “Footle,” is a device used to open sliding screen doors when your hands are full and is still being sold online.
Elizabeth had seen an ad about becoming a member of the BPW and called for information. As luck would have it, the woman who answered the phone had also been a nurse, and with that common bond, they soon became friends. As a member of the BPW, Elizabeth swiftly rose through their ranks. After a year she became the president of the local chapter, and then went on to serve in the New York State federation and then as international vice president. In 2008 she was elected to the prestigious position she now holds.
As international president, Elizabeth is charged with furthering the BPW’s mission to achieve equal participation between women and men in power and decision making roles. Her mission is to keep the group at the forefront of projects and programs that empower and enrich the lives of working women all over the world. The members of the BPW work in a cooperative role with the United Nations (UN) and other international organizations and have enjoyed a consultative status with the UN for over 60 years, influencing policy through their active participation on different levels.
Boasting more than 30,000 members worldwide, the organization is divided into five regions: Africa, Asian Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America. Elizabeth’s job is to unite these diverse groups, along with their functions and conferences. It isn’t easy, she admits. “You can be pulled into a hundred different directions,” she says.
Elizabeth spoke passionately about the benefits of BPW membership, including their leadership development programs, their entrée to international resources, and their worldwide connections through their participation at UN conferences and elsewhere. “Members advocate on issues that are important to them,” she says, “and each country has different issues.”
Ensuring that women receive equal pay in the workplace is one of Elizabeth’s top priorities. She cited an example that women from Croatia, a country still in its infancy, already receive equal pay for equal work by law and that much work still has to be done to get every woman pay parity. She believes that more women should be involved in corporate-decision making. “We need more women serving on corporate boards. One [board member] is not effective; you need a minimum of three.” She says there’s a benefit to the bottom line. “The ROI [return on investment] is 30 percent higher,” she adds. “We can prove it by the numbers.”
Elizabeth is taking the organization to new heights, one step at a time. “An 80-year-old organization has to be modernized,” she says. “I am busy coming up with new systems and processes. We don’t have bench marks. They’re not recorded in any way and now we have to collect all the information from the past. It’s another big job. We need to do a huge amount of research.”
Even though the group is global, Elizabeth stressed that there’s also a personal member-to-member connection. She is very pleased with the role the web has played with connecting members internationally. “Members are making friends with each other,” she says. “They’ve created forums and are doing business with each other.” She’s also compiling a certified list of women-owned businesses around the world to help the local chapters share their resources and connections with other members traveling to different cities on business.
Elizabeth keeps a grueling travel schedule herself, overseeing projects around the world. In China she will be attending a conference on how to improve international trade. Then she’s off to Korea, Tokyo and back to New York for a conference at the United Nations.
“We are not a charitable or service organization,” she explains. “We offer leadership development and real time learning. You can’t buy this [experience] at a university.”
“We have the power to make a difference,” she says passionately. “We have got to advance women. We have to have a voice.”
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Tags: Beverly Fortune, BPW, Elizabeth Benham, Enterprising and Professional Women Long Island, Fortune 52, highlight-columns, International Federation of Business and Professional Women, missed, South Africa, Virginia Russell, Women on Long Island, Women's Networking