Women in Business Join Forces for Growth and Support
Women in business have come a long way. (One indication is that there’s no “baby” at the end of that sentence.) Beyoncé, a vocal feminist, is worth at least $450 million. Hillary Clinton has made history as the first woman to be nominated as a presidential candidate by a major party. Professional women have had invigorating conversations about Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to “lean in.” But, what about a movement encouraging us to lean on—our fellow women business owners?
The business world, or most of it, may have come a long way from referring to professional women as “baby,” but there’s still plenty of work to be done. One route to increase the number of women at the helm of entrepreneurial ventures, as well as in C-suites, is networking communities for women in business.
When women in business talk to each other, whether for reasons mundane (where to buy insurance?) or universal (how good is good enough?), they can be inspired as well as supported in their professional goals. And many women entrepreneurs are looking to share support and inspiration with each other through discussion, networking, and mentorship groups.
The state of women in business
What’s it like to be a woman in business these days? There’s plenty of good news, certainly. OPEN: A Summary of Important Trends, 2007-2016, commissioned by American Express, estimated that, as of 2016, there are now 11.3 million women-owned businesses in the United States, which employ nearly 9 million people and generate over $1.6 trillion in revenue. Between 2007 and 2016, the number of women-owned firms increased by 45 percent, compared to a mere 9 percent increase among all businesses. In other words, over the past nine years, “the number of women-owned firms has grown fully five times faster than the national average.” Since 2007, women of color have launched nearly eight out of ten women-owned firms.
Co-founder of Boss Ladies, Jayme Yen, a Seattle networking and development group, and a creative director by trade, cited this growth as a key reason for wanting to belong to and then ultimately start her own “women in business” group.
“Maybe,” she says, “it’s because we’ve never before had so much opportunity, and yet we’re still coming up against long-time social mores and working within political and socioeconomic structures built for men.”
On March 8, International Women’s Day, Forbes reported that almost four in ten businesses in G7, or economically “advanced,” countries as identified by the International Monetary Fund, have no women in senior management positions. Women currently hold 20 of the CEO positions at S&P 500 companies, according to Catalyst, a global women’s inclusion nonprofit. That’s a paltry, one might even say embarrassing, 4.6 percent.
In addition to the sexism female entrepreneurs are used to encountering—investors or others assuming the man in the room is the head of the company, for example—women starting or running their own business can feel isolated.
Benefits of a business sisterhood
Professional proximity can forge new perspectives and offer mentorship. Boss Ladies, for example, “is a source of support and shared conversation about careers and work for women inclusively,” explains co-founder Gina Broze, Seattle Townsquared member and a publication specialist.
Broze says the group originated when “Jayme and I had both just quit our jobs and were going independent. It was a pretty scary but exciting time. We both had so many questions, from the basic ‘How do you get a business license?’ to huge questions, like ‘How do you measure success?’” Boss Ladies is a place to get answers and find camaraderie.
The return on the investment of time and attention has resulted in various highlights for women small business owners like Broze. A women’s networking group is “a great structure to approach someone who maybe you don’t know—an expert on a topic or field—and say, ‘Hey, I have this group that I started and we’d love to hear you speak about X.’”
Brooke Fitts, a photographer, and Sondra Firestein, and owner of Pursuit Concierge + Lifestyle Management, both Seattle Townsquared members, echoed these sentiments. Fitts has taken over leadership for 25th Hour, a group that hosts lectures and networking for local women business owners whose members are invited by word of mouth. She says the most valuable return on her investment has been “the relationships that come out of it—networking and connecting in a way that’s unforced and very authentic.”
Firestein began the monthly Thirsty Gals group as a source of support for women in business and found the key to the group’s success is the ability of its members to share about both their personal and professional challenges. She notes, “Throughout the last two years, the lives of those who joined us transformed [through marriages, divorces, business launches, professional successes]. True connections were formed that have expanded far beyond the structured monthly meeting and have continued to provide lasting support.” Indeed, whole-relationship building, with an emphasis on traditionally “feminine” traits like empathy, collaboration, and emotional intelligence, is the basis of transformational leadership.
The Greater Seattle Business Association (GSBA), the largest LGBT Chamber in North America, runs the SEWgsba (Seattle Entrepreneurial Women) program, among many others. Louise Chernin, President and CEO of GSBA says they organized the group “because women business owners often are more isolated, have less access to capital, may have more responsibility for family, and are still addressing the many areas in which women still do not have economic parity.” SEWgsba responds to many aspects of contemporary entrepreneurship specific to its community, like the enormous growth of Seattle and its consequences for small businesses—rising commercial rents, changing city policies around minimum wage, paid sick leave, and more. With the SEWgsba team on their side, members feel supported by each other and by the chamber.
Modeling isn’t just for runways
A particular benefit of “women in business” groups is that they are a forceful tool to combat the lack of representation in everything from stock photos to government to the film industry. Everyone looks to see themselves reflected in their culture. Sometimes the best place to find it is by creating a group of your peers.
For Seattle’s Erin Lynch, Social Media Lead at Deloitte Digital, groups for women in business, created by and for peers, offer foundational insights into her career and its trajectory. “The [groups] that have been the most valuable to me are not the ones organized by businesses where I have worked,” she explains, “but rather the ones organized by employees themselves. We have several groups that spun out of the ‘official’ women-in-tech groups. We share articles, our real feelings about said articles, discuss what happens to us at conferences and how we handle it.”
Indie media makers also see that women are hungry for inspiration and advice from other women forging their own paths. It’s evident in new publications like one coming out this fall by longtime, popular blogger Grace Bonney of Design*Sponge. Like many digital and in-person groups for women, the book In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs is designed to inspire professional women. In the Company of Women is a collection of interviews and images about success as experienced by Bonney’s own cohort of 100 women.
Get involved, get ahead
From looking for inspiration on the web and in books, to jumping in feet first, networking empowerment comes in many forms. It can be very informal—Slack channels, closed social media groups—to very formal, like organizations for women cultivated within Fortune 100 companies.
While some are concerned that women-only groups may be just another silo, a way to placate women professionals without educating or creating mandates within male-dominated company leadership, all of the women we spoke with found value in these groups. Tt doesn’t look like this trend is going anywhere.
Professional networking groups can help you understand and take advantage of the value of your network, as well as provide resources, information, and inspiration. You may see yourself in others with whom you have goals in common. You may develop more aspirations with support of camaraderie to overcome frustrations about everything from poor childcare provisions to institutional bias. Groups can be there for you to vent your frustrations and share defeats as well as triumphs in your business. Women in business networking groups can be a lifeline to mentorship, meaningful relationships, and success.
These organizations also offer an end to professional isolation for women entrepreneurs. These networks can be the basis of connections, support, and mentorship, helping women navigate the complexities of their careers. Professional women’s groups reflect driven and innovative women back to themselves, amplifying their ambitions and the scope of their successes. All these are significant and meaningful, if not entirely measurable, returns on women’s investments in a group.
Townsquared is proud to help foster groups like these, however formal or informal. The group of women who attended our San Francisco workshop on “Empowering Women in Business” in August, for example, created an informal networking and support group. In Seattle, some Townsquared members recently organized a morning inspirational group that meets rotates meeting at each woman’s business. Regardless of your business’s location, you can check out the National Association for Women Business Owners (NAWBO), which has regional chapters and provides numerous resources with membership.
The women in these groups have taken the initiative, as all successful small business owners do, to create a space in which they can get the support they need, ask business leaders questions, and inspire each other.
If you’re located in Seattle, and interested in joining the new morning group, check with your local community manager, Melissa Peterman, about the meeting! Townsquared Seattle provides coffee, pastries, AND a quick, inspirational way to start your day. The group highlights women and their businesses with a short presentation on topics like “how I got here” or “what I learned,” followed by networking, leaving plenty of time for the members to get to work, opening their shops, studios, and offices.
Not in Seattle? Start an informal digital channel or group in your community, and keep on shattering that glass ceiling until it’s gone!