Local women’s networking groups pay off in surprising ways

GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Participants in a structured networking event hosted by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s WomanUP initiative made new connections and boosted their networking skills. Photo courtesy of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce
GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Participants in a structured networking event hosted by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s WomanUP initiative made new connections and boosted their networking skills. Photo courtesy of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce

Mandy Wildman used to dread networking for her web design business. “I hated going to those meetings and talking to people I didn’t know,” she recalls.

Most typical networking meetings, she says, are oriented toward achieving short-term business goals. She realized that’s not how she and many other women operate. 

“Traditional networking is about getting customers. The way women network best is about giving support — meeting each other in a safe space, getting to know each other and finding out if we are a match for doing business,” Wildman explains.

That epiphany led her to start a Facebook group, WNC Women Entrepreneurs, and, later, a Meetup group of the same name. Both groups have attracted large and enthusiastic followings — about 1,600 in the case of Facebook and 400 in the Meetup.

Along with a number of other local groups, including the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s WomanUP initiative, Wildman says she is tapping into women’s desire to create authentic connections with other women who are pursuing business goals.

Womanly ways

In WNC Women Entrepreneurs’ monthly meetings, “Women feel comfortable talking about our most heartfelt passions and goals,” Wildman explains.

After getting together for four years, many of the group’s members have formed close relationships. “The whole basis of it is liking each other and hitting it off. That’s what drives our networking,” Wildman says. Solo entrepreneurship, she continues, can be a lonely endeavor. Connecting with others fills a gap for those who have left traditional workplaces behind in favor of more “Asheville” pursuits — businesses in the healing arts, fitness, life coaching, writing and creative endeavors such as fine art, jewelry making and fashion.

Wildman says the support of women in the group helped her gather the courage to launch a new business venture, Vibrant Galaxy, an upcycled clothing boutique in Maggie Valley. Open for three months, she says people are starting to discover the shop.

At the group’s most recent meeting on Sept. 26, nearly 30 women dressed in vibrant colors buzzed with excitement as they introduced themselves and chatted with one another. While many were longtime group members, several said they were attending for the first time.

It’s a date

Sheneika Smith started Date My City to create connections among people of color across Asheville. Historical African-American communities like Southside, the East End, Burton Street and Shiloh experienced disruption as the result of urban renewal programs in the 1950s and 1960s, Smith explains. These days, gentrification threatens minority neighborhoods’ cohesion. As the communities struggle to maintain their identities, Date My City aims to link people from different areas to create business, personal and social justice synergies.

Women make up the majority of the attendees at the organization’s events, Smith says. “Women are just kind of naturally inquisitive,” she says. “We make a new connection that might lead to a business opportunity and partnership, or it might be a play date for our kids.”

Underrepresented communities, says Smith, suffer from a lack of opportunities for career growth. “For people who are affected by the achievement gap and its resulting underemployment, they often don’t feel like they are a good fit for networking occasions,” she explains. Without an impressive resume, it can be difficult to figure out what one has to offer others. Through initiatives like Date My City, Smith believes, people can “belong and feel a part of the community, but also feel a sense of independence and mastery.”

Asheville is poised for progress, says Smith, who at press time was a candidate for City Council (the primary for that contest was held Oct. 10). “People’s confidence is rising. I think the black community and brown community, we feel more of our power. I think we are going to see some momentum and have opportunities to be a part of different conversations and different initiatives.”

Another prime networking event for women, especially women of color, is the annual Western Women’s Business Conference, which convened its third session in June (see “Wearing Many Hats: Western Women’s Business Conference Celebrates Diversity and Empowerment,” Xpress, June 28). Organized by the Western Women’s Business Center, the event provides inspiration, advice and ways to connect with other women engaged in entrepreneurial and business endeavors.

Getting a boost

Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kit Cramer describes the genesis of her organization’s woman-focused business initiative, WomanUP, as a response to an unmet need. A couple of years ago, the chamber hosted a panel discussion for local up-and-coming entrepreneurs. In putting that panel together, Cramer says, chamber leaders realized that many of those featured were women in the early stages of their careers. She wanted to tap into their energy and help create new connections between more established leaders and those who have arrived more recently on the business scene.

IT’S PERSONAL: Done right, networking can yield profound business, personal and career benefits, experts say . Photo courtesy of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce
IT’S PERSONAL: Done right, networking can yield profound business, personal and career benefits, experts say . Photo courtesy of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce

The first WomanUP event, held last November, attracted a capacity crowd. In addition to an awards presentation honoring local business leaders Jael Rattigan, Suzanne DeFerie and Tracy Buchanan, the event also featured Pamela Ryckman, a journalist, screenwriter and author of The Stiletto Network: Inside the Women’s Power Circles That Are Changing the Face of Business. (“Local Female Business Leaders Honored at Inaugural WomanUP Networking Event,” Xpress online, Nov. 10, 2016, avl.mx/45u)

After the event, Cramer says, local women made it clear they were sold on the value of networking. “They said, ‘Yes, we need networks! Build them for us,’” she recalls with a laugh. “And we said, ‘You have to build them for yourself, but we’ll help you do it.’”

In August, the chamber hosted its first structured networking event for women. Laura Webb, president of Webb Investment Services in Asheville, took the lead on planning for the gathering.

“When we started structuring the workshop, we knew we wanted to have a mentor at each of the tables,” she says. “Then over 330 people signed up.” That number of attendees, she continues, meant the organizers needed to recruit nearly 40 senior businesswomen to facilitate each table of eight. Amazingly, says Webb, “It wasn’t hard in this community.” The list of those who accepted the call includes many area bigwigs, and Webb says she could easily think of another 20-30 women she could have asked. All the mentors bought their own tickets and participated in a facilitation training session before the networking event.

“We have a lot of great women leaders in this community, from nonprofits, government and the private sector,” Webb says.

To gain the full benefit of networking efforts, Webb says, “You have to be purposeful and strategic to take the time and make an effort.” In the end, she says, “You make the opportunities for good things to happen in both your personal and your business life.”

 

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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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