Women’s networking groups have been around for decades in B.C., but as the needs of members change, the content and direction of these groups have adapted.
There are still the larger organizations that draw luncheons or dinners of 100 attendees monthly. But within these associations, the trend now is in the formation of “masterminds” – smaller gatherings of a dozen or so networkers who spend time drilling down on individuals’ business challenges in what are known as hot seats or idea parties. Entrepreneurs take turns identifying a specific problem they are facing, and the group contributes ideas to its solution.
There are also groups popping up whose goal is to steer away from the press-the-flesh-and-pass-the-card traditional practices and concentrate more on personal connections and building relationships over time.
Not all networking groups are intended for business owners, either. There are groups that exist for professional women to address challenges that differ from those of their entrepreneur cousins, and places for university students or recent graduates to test the waters.
Here is a cross-section of women’s networking and support groups in B.C. (For advice on how to choose a group that’s best for you, see “Ready, Set, Network” on page 10.)
Forum for Women Entrepreneurs
The Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (FWE) is all about education and mentorship. It has joined the ranks of those running mastermind sessions, holding “AM” (Ask Me) sessions – morning gatherings, once or twice a month, for 10 to 14 entrepreneurs – that offer opportunities to network, as well as examine a troublesome business hurdle in detail.
FWE, which was founded in 2002 and became a registered charity in 2016, is well known for its E-Series, an annual three-day-long comprehensive business builder program, followed by 12 months of support, that immerses participants in the world of business. More than 500 women have gone through the curriculum, which is open to businesswomen across Canada.
Female business operators looking for cash are likely to be familiar with FWE’s Pitch for the Purse contest, which puts candidates in a Dragons’ Den-like experience to pitch their business idea in exchange for an investment.
FWE also has a mentorship program, which has helped more than 1,600 participants.
“The ideal entrepreneur [for FWE] is growth driven,” says Lisa Niemetscheck, director of fundraising and corporate sponsorship. “She realizes that she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know and she needs a support ecosystem.
“If you’re in business – whether Day 1 or Day 100 – you need a mentor. You’re not talking business strategies with your salesperson. Your friends and family are supportive but not objective. A mentor gets you thinking about your company in a whole new way.”
WEB Alliance of Women’s Business Networks
The first stop on a tour of women’s networking groups in B.C. has to be at the WEB Alliance. An umbrella organization representing 30 women’s groups, the WEB Alliance serves as a voice for its member organizations and other women’s networking and business support groups.
It operates as a resource centre, facilitates collaboration and networking between the various member groups and acts as a government adviser and consultant at municipal, provincial and federal levels.
Kerrilee Auger, co-chair of the WEB Alliance, sees a primary task of women’s business groups as getting support to the women when they need it.
“We always say, don’t avoid asking for help,” says Auger. “But women may ask too late.”
Previous WEB Alliance leadership helped create the Premier’s Women’s Economic Council under the administration of former premier Christy Clark, says Auger. Now the alliance participates in council conversations such as how the BC Jobs Plan affects women in business.
“This is how women entrepreneurs through the province can speak directly to the government and provide recommendations … letting them know the challenges or barriers they’re facing,” says Auger.
Women’s Enterprise Centre
Offering business planning services, skills-based webinars, business advising, networking opportunities, workshops and loans and peer mentoring, the Women’s Enterprise Centre (WEC) covers a broad range of support services, particularly in the area of startups or those needing financing.
Startups can attend peer-mentoring groups, where a successful female business owner volunteers her time to guide the small group.
“They provide environments to network, speak openly with other women entrepreneurs and step out your comfort zones to meet new people,” says Katherine Britton, director of business development.
In the area of financing, Britton adds that people often don’t know about access to loans of up to $150,000 through a joint program between WEC, Futurpreneur Canada and the Business Development Bank of Canada.
WEC also offers one-on-one complimentary business counselling, a library of resources and a list of women’s networking groups in B.C.
The Dallas-based eWomenNetwork has chapters around the world, with a very active one in the Lower Mainland.
Regular networking events include a monthly Accelerated Networking luncheon or dinner held at the Holiday Inn on Broadway and twice-a-month strategic business introductions (SBIs). The SBI is similar to the mastermind group where 12 business owners or professionals are given extended networking time and the chance to build their relationships.
“It’s so much more than networking,” says Lee-Ann Frances Bates, managing director, Vancouver Metro. “It’s a built mastermind. So many people are spending so much money on masterminds, and this is free for members to come with guests.
“Everyone’s getting to know you more intimately. I have seen more really cool collaborations come out of SBIs because one person will bring up their challenge and another member can see how they can help.
“It’s like having your own team of advisers. You get 12 people more deeply interested than when you’re at a larger networking event and have only one minute to talk about it.”
What sets eWomen apart from other networking groups is the extensive marketing platform. Members can set up their own podcasting channels through the system and have a ready-made audience of tens of thousands; business coaches can have a platform where their services are offered to every new member; and members with an area of expertise can offer to speak at different chapters or hold online webinars to educate viewers and promote their business.
“What I love about eWomen is that there is a different energy and feel involved,” says Bates. “People aren’t throwing their business cards at me; they seem genuinely interested in relationships.”
Oceanside Women’s Business Network
On Vancouver Island, the Oceanside Women’s Business Network (OWBN) is one of four women’s business networking groups that share reciprocal services – Oceanside (Parksville area), West Shore (Victoria), Nanaimo and Comox Valley.
“Our mandate is to provide networking opportunities for mutual support of women and their endeavours, attend meetings, promote business and learn from each other,” says newly elected OWBN president Debbie Wilder.
Members of Wilder’s group attend monthly and annual events that normally bring in guest speakers to train in the area of personal or business success.
“Just the confidence that we gain in being in a group like that better prepares us for going into other groups and feeling good when standing in your own shoes,” says Wilder.
As with other networking groups, OWBN welcomes professionals and retirees.
“It’s not just about going and making money,” says Wilder. “It’s about diversity and finding out where other people are at, where they’ve been, how they got there.”
The Ladies Meeting
Drop by the Sylvia Hotel on the last Tuesday of the month, and you’re likely to see a group of about 20 women chatting over lunch as though they were all lifelong friends.
This was one of the dynamics Anyssa Carruthers set out to create when she was looking for a different style of networking after moving from Abbotsford to Vancouver.
“I didn’t want to get pulled around by people who really just wanted to sign you up for their business.”
Formalized in 2012, the Ladies Meeting is for female entrepreneurs who want to grow their businesses, but not exclusively.
“It’s not necessary to be in business,” says Carruthers. “We get university students or professional women who work at home but need to get out once a month.”
The atmosphere is more relaxed, and conversations tend toward the personal rather than the business side of people’s lives.
“We encourage people to drop the business card, look someone in the face and build a relationship,” says Carruthers.
Self-Employed Women’s Network
Offering events ranging from small get-togethers to larger networking socials, the Self-Employed Women’s Network (SEWN) operates on the Sunshine Coast and, as with OWBN, is part of a trio of women’s groups with reciprocal services. One group serves the area around Sechelt, another exists near Pender Harbour and a third is in Gibsons.
The association grew out of the Sunshine Coast Community Resource Centre Progress Plan that was funded by a three-year Status of Women grant to look at barriers to women living healthy and productive lives.
“There are more than 1,000 self-employed women on the coast,” says SEWN director at large Christina Stewart. “SEWN allows you to discover and connect with other women who are going through the same things you are.”
The three groups enable members to attend three different meetings a month, giving them practice in building relationships outside of their own community.
Stewart says the interaction boosts women’s confidence, especially when attending events they’ve never been to.
“The easiest way to walk into a room cold is to ask yourself, ‘How do I help this person?’” Stewart suggests. “I come from a place of curiosity to see who I can connect them with. That takes the pressure off me having to come up with an elevator pitch or be my best self. Sometimes it’s just about listening.”
When Diane Rolston went out looking for a networking group in 2013, she couldn’t find one that suited her.
“I was going out networking looking for people who were real,” says Rolston. “I’d show up early and leave late, and it still wasn’t enough. I couldn’t find the time to schedule what I was learning. People were wondering, how do you make friends and branch out?”
So Rolston started Dynamic Women in Action (now Dynamic Women) as a means to get more authentic relationships and engagement.
“You show up as who you are rather than what you do; you get to show up as real,” says Rolston. “You get to know someone and you start to like them because you find similarities, and you trust each other because you share with one another.”
Rolston hosts monthly events throughout the year for 20 to 30 women; she facilitates the events herself with a discussion topic related to business.
Dynamic Women groups are now running in Vancouver, Port Coquitlam and North Vancouver. Rolston’s licensing model allows other coaches to run similar groups in their own communities.
“I hate to think that women are sitting somewhere alone craving a deeper connection and wanting to grow themselves and help others,” she says.
Women’s Leadership Circle, Greater Vancouver Board of Trade
The Women’s Leadership Circle (WLC) is one of four signature programs under the auspices of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade. The others are the Small Business Council, Leaders of Tomorrow and Company of Young Professionals. There is no separate membership – board of trade members as well as non-members can simply join the WLC’s events.
The primary goal of the WLC is to promote diversity in business, which is done through networking, social events, advocacy and championing women in the workplace, according to Bridgitte Anderson, chair of the WLC advisory committee.
“Networking happens broadly,” says Anderson. “And it can’t just be about women; we have to have men at the table. And we have men at the WLC who are active members. It really is a conversation with men and women that helps move the dial.
“But to me it’s much more than networking; it also is a way for us to feel like we’re contributing to help move each other forward and provide opportunities for women to find leadership positions.”
The Greater Vancouver Board of Trade is an organizing partner of the We for She event taking place at the Vancouver Convention Centre in November (weforshe.ca). The gathering of advocates, change makers, business leaders and other stakeholders is intended to be one of the largest events in North America to tackle gender equity in leadership.