Female business leaders and entrepreneurs from across the Asheville area gathered in A-B Tech’s Mission Health Conference Center Thursday morning at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s inaugural WomanUP networking event.
The capacity crowd joined staff members of the CoC, event sponsors and colleagues to share breakfast and network with fellow women professionals from a diverse array of local industries. After the breakfast, an awards ceremony recognized three local female leaders in business, executive leadership and the nonprofit world.
WomanUP also featured a keynote address by Pamela Ryckman, a journalist, screenwriter and author of The Stiletto Network: Inside the Women’s Power Circles That Are Changing the Face of Business.
Progress and potential
Kit Cramer opened the event with a reference to the recent presidential election. “Regardless of how you felt about Hillary Clinton, I can’t come to a women’s event and not note that that particular glass ceiling has not been broken for our country,” she said.
Cramer, executive director of the Chamber, encouraged women leaders to move forward with courage and compassion in their work. Women should not allow anyone to be demeaned or denied the opportunity to reach their full potential, she said.
“While women in businesses are on the rise, in Buncombe County, they only account for 36 percent of the [total] businesses,” Kramer noted. “There’s a noticeably smaller percentage of women who are CEOs — That means we have more work to do.”
Despite this discrepancy, Cramer pointed out, the Asheville area has a number of women in prominent leadership roles, including the chair of the Chamber, the incoming and outgoing chairs of the Economic Development Coalition and the chair of the Tourism Development Authority.
After Cramer’s remarks, Laura Webb shared her experiences as a young professional in the male-dominated world of financial planning.
“There weren’t a lot of support roles, mentors or people to look up to for me,” Webb recalled of her early days as the founder of Webb Investment Services. Webb has sponsored the Woman In Business Award for the past 14 years, and this year she served as one of the organizers of the WomanUP event.
“Today, there’s still only 12 to 17 percent women that are in an adviser role, and fewer that own their own businesses. I would like to help many of you shorten your path, and I hope this [event] gives you inspiration and opportunity and connection,” Webb said.
Webb presented 2016’s “Best in Business” Award to Jael Rattigan, owner of French Broad Chocolates, highlighting Rattigan’s achievements in growing her business since she founded it with her husband Dan in 2007.
Rattigan wasn’t present to receive the award, but Webb praised her in absentia. The award, she said, “recognizes a woman who demonstrates the transformation of her dream into a reality, of a product or service and exhibits the traits of an entrepreneur with a willingness to take risk, personal drive, focus, perseverance, innovation and business acumen.”
“With passion and determination, [Rattigan] committed to [her] business. French Broad Chocolates crosses the line between manufacturing, dessert restaurant and retail, and continues to have considerable growth,” Webb said.
Mission Health’s Senior Vice President Taylor Foss introduced the winner of the newly-created “Woman Executive of the Year” award, Suzanne DeFerie, president and CEO of Asheville Savings Bank.
“Suzanne was the first female executive hired by the [Asheville Savings Bank],” Foss noted. “Throughout her career, Suzanne has sought and accepted opportunities that expand her professional experience and test the boundaries of her comfort zone. She’s developing women to not just strive for excellence in their professional work, but to become leaders in their communities as well.”
The final award, “Outstanding Woman in Nonprofit Leadership,” went to Tracy Buchanan, CEO of CarePartners Health Services. Buchanan started with CarePartners as a physical therapist and eventually worked her way through the organization to become its president and CEO, in addition to serving as the chair of the Asheville CoC’s executive committee and on nonprofit boards across the community.
“Today, we recognize a woman who has worked for her organization for more than 20 years,” said Charles Frederick of TD Bank, which sponsored the award. “She created a vision of a unique, integrated, post-acute care continuum unlike any other in the state. She’s described as a remarkable, steadfast leader who has revolutionized the organization’s culture by focusing on working smarter, pursuing excellence and innovation and promoting work-life balance.”
A league of their ownFollowing the awards presentation, Ryckman spoke about the rising importance of what she called “Stiletto Networks” in fostering a strong community of women entrepreneurs and leaders across the globe.
“I’ve found these networks in every major American city,” she said of the research she completed for her book. “Most of the groups have no more than 10 women, but in aggregate, they number in the more than hundreds of thousands of women nationwide, and millions globally.”
These informal support groups, Ryckman noted, transcend age groups and industry boundaries and allow women to blend personal needs with professional desires, while also facilitating a climate of support among female-run and -owned businesses.
“I’ve charted billions of dollars of transactions and corporate board seats attained, companies founded and funded, all as a result of these little groups of genuine female friendship,” she said. “What we’re looking at now is women across the nation coming together to shake the foundations — not only of business, but also of politics and philanthropy. Stiletto networks aren’t something you get when you’re powerful, they’re something that makes you powerful.”
Despite the impact of these networks on increasing women’s presence in professional leadership roles, Ryckman noted that more female representation is needed at the highest echelons of the corporate world. She encouraged attendees to continue to forge new connections and to invest time, energy and money into younger women seeking to rise in their professions.
“For the first time in history, women are investing in other women at untold rates,” Ryckman said. “That’s what’s going to create this explosion of women’s wealth and power.”
She also encouraged women to take time to develop these relationships outside of work settings by going on retreats and organizing informal meet-ups. And, urged Ryckman, “Play with boys. Don’t sequester yourselves. Inform and question them — open their perspectives and understanding of how they can help young professional women.”
Following Ryckman’s presentation, attendees were given free copies of The Stiletto Network, which Ryckman stayed after the event to autograph.
Kramer closed by asking those in attendance to join the CoC’s new AVL WomanUP LinkedIn group and to provide feedback on what types of future WomanUP events could best provide female leaders in the area with the resources they need.
“We have a great array of brain power in the room,” Kramer said. “Tell us what would help you as a woman, as a business leader, as a citizen of this community. Tell us how you want to connect.”
For more information on the Asheville Chamber of Commerce’s WomanUP networking initiative and upcoming events, visit ashevillechamber.org. To join the CoC’s AVL WOmanUP LinkedIn group, check out linkedin.com/groups/12017590/profile.