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When it comes to women founding their own companies, Angela Jia Kim believes that it “takes a village.”
Kim, founder of a women’s networking group called Savor the Success, says she lives by this mantra. Like Kim, many female entrepreneurs these days are interested in more than just making contacts. They’re seeking meaningful connections, shared interests, and lifelong friendships.
“I’m not interested in a business card in one hand and cocktail in another,” Kim says. “I’m more interested in meaningful conversations and fulfilling friendships with likeminded, awe-inspiring, amazing women. If you have that kind of mindset, you’re bound to know people of that same mindset.”
In the past decade, women’s networking groups have boomed, mirroring the growing number of women-owned businesses. Today, there are more than 8 million women-owned firms around the country. That accounts for nearly half of all businesses, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research, a program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
“The 2014 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report,” commissioned by American Express OPEN, reveals that as of last year, women-owned firms generated nearly $2.9 trillion in revenues and employed just over 15.9 million people. From 1997 to 2014, an average of 591 new women-owned businesses started each day. Last year, the number hit an all-time high, with every day of the year seeing the launch of 1,288 new women-owned firms.
It’s clear that women networking groups are becoming vital, as more and more female entrepreneurs are starting small businesses. The women we talked to agree that networking groups provide five important resources: community, personal stories, mentorship, funding, and business acumen.
The women in Savor the Success take their community seriously. The group is made up of ambitious women who have a laser-sharp focus on improving their businesses. Through small group meetings with women from across the nation, they take turns sharing business problems, setting weekly goals, and collaborating on creative ideas.
“My philosophy in business is give, give, get,” Kim says. “What you get in return is the satisfaction of knowing you made a difference. In business, having an established network means you can call someone up when you need a connection, and that person connects the stars in the sky.”
Kim points out that Savor the Success features industry-specific circles that serve as networking groups.
“When you have the connections already in the group, it makes navigating through the business world so much easier,” she says. “You can go through that channel a lot quicker than cold calling and having to climb up the rank.”
Katrina Melesciuc, co-founder of Women’s iLab, a Boston and New York-based networking group, says that women entrepreneurs are eager to “push past boundaries.”
“There’s a shift in the way women want to network,” says Melesciuc. “Instead of just listening and learning something new, women want to be part of the conversation and establish relationships.”
Women networkers say they thrive especially well in environments where they can connect with professionals who are open to sharing their personal stories. Some find community through online resources such as Meetup.com, Eventbrite.com, and LinkedIn, some of the most popular avenues for discovering professional and social networking events. You can filter and search for industry-specific events in your area with a click of a button.
Other networking groups offer a mix of virtual community and in-person functions. Women’s iLab, for example, has an online community of more than 100 female entrepreneurs who pass along personal stories through a Pinterest-like web board. They touch on topics ranging from the realities of maternity leave, to strengthening your business pitch, to how Taylor Swift is changing the music industry.
Then there are after-work events where women can network with industry experts at small roundtable meetings or take notes during talks by accomplished speakers like Lauren Lockwood, chief digital officer of the City of Boston, and Jane Baecher, a head designer and buyer at the New York City-based Rent the Runway, an online service that provides designer dresses and accessories.
There’s a growing need for networking groups to provide opportunities for women in search of mentors. Women’s iLab co-founder Tara Chang says she was inspired to start the organization because there was a lack of female mentors for entrepreneurs. She recognized the need for a structured system where women could connect with each other.
“We saw a need in the market for ourselves to find mentors, so the organization spun out of it,” Chang says. “As we continued to grow, we saw more women facing the same need we faced: looking for female mentors and connecting with women who were inspiring.”
As networking groups emerge and evolve, they’ve also been providing more funding. Women’s iLab recently partnered with startup accelerator MassChallenge to award companies with one or more female founders the chance to work out of the MassChallenge office on a full scholarship. The partnership also provides access to mentorship, training, and legal and media advice.
Another popular reason women join networking groups is opportunities to gain business acumen through classes and workshops. Ladies Who Launch has drawn women who are go-getters and ambitious about breaking out of the nine-to-five work cycle and starting enterprises that reflect their true passions, skills, and desires.
Ladies Who Launch offers a four-week Incubator Intensive for startups and The Fresh Entrepreneur, a business growth and branding class. More than 1,500 women have participated, helping more than 10,000 women in the process. Ladies Who Launch is paving the way for resources and connections for female entrepreneurs in a notoriously male-dominated field. Times are definitely changing.
“I think men have known about the power of networking from the start,” Kim says. “They have things like the Harvard and Yale Boys Clubs, the rotary clubs, and masonry clubs. There are so many men’s clubs. I think women are finally understanding the power of standing together and working together to support each other.”