While recent reports of persistent salary inequality between men and women reveal much progress is still to be made in the workplace, another batch of stats show amazing strides by women in another area: entrepreneurship. One study by American Express showed a 59 percent increase in American businesses owned by women in the last 15 years, with the 8.6 million women-owned businesses generating $1.3 trillion annually and 16 percent of U.S. jobs. And a new report by The Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute projects women-owned small businesses will create one-third of all new jobs over the next five years.
So in this climate of expansion for women in business, is there still a need in this day and age for businesswomen to get together in women-only networking groups to support each other?
Posing that question at the Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) meeting held Wednesday, June 12 in Saugerties brought forth talk of the “old boy’s club” that still exists to some degree and a perception by some women of not being fully treated as a professional peer by some of their male counterparts. That none of the women who answered the question wanted to be directly quoted on the subject indicates that women in business still face specific challenges men do not.
AWE was formed in Saugerties several years ago when Key Bank asked branch manager Tiffany Sperl to establish a local networking group for women in business as part of their Key4Women program. (Key Bank is known for being very proactive in their support of businesswomen, and they walk the talk: they boast the only female CEO of a top 20 bank.)
Sperl brought the idea to Saugerties resident Cornelia Seckel, co-founder and publisher of Art Times, and to Mery Rosado, owner and proprietor of Café Mezzaluna and The Village Inn. Coincidentally, Seckel and Rosado had been talking about forming just such a group, so the three women pooled their ideas and created an alliance.
The group is not affiliated with other similarly-named organizations, and in fact, Rosado says that one of the things the members most enjoy about it is its informality. There are no dues paid and no requirement or expectation to attend every meeting.
Still, a consistency of support for each other is there. That, along with the camaraderie and the opportunity to network with other businesswomen in similar situations, were the most cited reasons for attending heard at the June 12 meeting. The basic premise laid out by the group is: “We gather to share ideas, problem solve, socialize, network and get suggestions and advice from other women in business.”
They meet at a different location mid-week once a month, often the home of one of the members, who provides dinner for which each attendee chips in $10 to cover the cost. An additional $3–5 is requested of those who drink wine with their dinner. Socializing and networking at dinner is followed by a loosely-organized meeting, at which any member can stand up and make an announcement, ask for advice with a business problem or offer a topic for discussion. Seckel says they initially tried to conduct their meetings using something along the lines of “Robert’s Rules of Order” for efficiency, but the group abandoned that when it became clear that keeping things informal worked better.
Sometimes a guest speaker is invited to the meeting, as was the case in April when Jan Waller, an authority on LinkedIn, spoke to the group about how to use the professional networking site to grow their businesses. Seckel says the use of Facebook for business purposes is also encouraged within the group.
At other times, members will offer a demonstration of their talents or share their skills. At one gathering a member demonstrated yoga, and when two fitness trainers sat in on a meeting they gave the group some health-related tips. In September, the meeting is planned as a small health fair, with presentations by members in health-related fields, including Aubrey Zambrella, a self-employed massage therapist and Marilyn MacClellan, whose business provides a thermal breast imaging service that screens for potential cancer.
Giving and receiving business referrals is one of the benefits of attending a women’s networking group, and Seckel says they’re in the process of creating a database of member information so they can support each other’s businesses. While the meeting on June 12 brought out about 25 women, the emailing list in total of those who attend AWE meetings on at least an occasional basis numbers about three times that, and several of the women present were first-time participants who are potentially future members.
A wide range of professions was represented in the group at the recent meeting. There were two bed-and-breakfast owners, Christine Clark of the Clark House in Palenville and Jacquie Wolf, whose Harmony House bed and breakfast was the host for the meeting. Peggy Schwartz, owner and operator of Town & Country Liquors, who was recently named Businessperson of the Year by the Saugerties Area Chamber of Commerce, is a regular core member, as is Barbara Gill, proprietor of Valley Courier and Delivery Service in Kingston. Other attendees included two jewelry-artisans, a graphic designer, a freelance journalist, an aesthetician, a bookkeeper and tax preparer, a real estate attorney and three dentists.
Zambrella said she likes the problem-solving part of the meeting.
“Even if it doesn’t pertain to my business exactly, it still helps to hear how someone else is working through a problem,” she said.
Real estate attorney Holly Strutt has been coming to meetings for the past year, and credits the group with helping her solidify her business plans when she moved up full-time from the city.
Marilyn MacClellan, who offers the thermal breast imaging service, said that attending the meetings made her move to the area from Virginia much easier, and allowed her to meet people at a time when she didn’t yet know anyone in the region. “The group is awesome,” she said. “They’re local women who know the area, they’re well-established, and it’s a great support system with no strings attached.”
The next Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs meeting will be held Tuesday, July 9. New members are welcome. For more information about attending an A.W.E. meeting, contact Jacquie Wolf at email@example.com.