It’s 7:30 a.m. But as the members of Columbia WIN gather for their monthly meeting, the room resonates with camaraderie, anticipation and excitement that belie the early hour. For the past eight years, this local women’s networking group has been providing members with business support, encouragement and referrals. Yet, that only begins to scratch the surface of the benefits of this innovative group. In truth, WIN offers so much more.
When Susan Myers, broker/Realtor with Weichert Realtors, began researching local networking groups back in 2006, she found several in the Columbia area, but none of them seemed a good fit. She discovered many of her friends were having the same problem.
“We were all looking to build business relationships, not just hand out names and numbers as many networking groups focus on,” Myers says. As a result, they launched their own networking group, Columbia WIN (Women in Networking).
Although networking groups have been around for decades, women-only groups are a relatively new concept. They are often referred to as “stiletto networking,” a term coined by author Pamela Ryckman in her 2013 book Stiletto Network: Inside the Women’s Power Circles that are Changing the Face of Business.
Lotta Timberlake, certified chiropractic sports physician, is one of the original Columbia WIN members. “I went to school to become a chiropractor, but they didn’t teach me how to build a business,” she says. “So you have to go out and discover how to do that.” But Timberlake says understanding the nuts and bolts of getting a business off the ground is often just the tip of the iceberg for many professional women.
“As a woman, a mother and a wife and a business owner, it can be hard to find people that you can bounce things off of, that you can be yourself around and rely on for support,” she says.
Casey Elliott, attorney with Van Matre, Harrison, Hollis and Taylor and a newer member of WIN, had tried other networking groups but felt they were too high pressure for her taste. “So, when you were there, you weren’t taking the time to invest in those people and learn about their businesses,” Elliot says. “I never felt that I was contributing anything to the meeting except for names.”
An emphasis on building relationships is what sets WIN apart from the pack. One way they accomplish this is by offering “focus” sessions during each of their monthly meetings, providing an opportunity for two members to talk about what they need in their particular businesses. “It might be they are focusing on attracting new business and/or maintaining the existing business, or perhaps something personal is affecting their business,” Myers says.
WIN members then offer advice, says Rhonda Moore, owner and manager of All About Signs and Shirts. “It is always amazing to me how sound the advice is that she receives from the other women. It is so helpful to know you have a team that can help you problem solve different scenarios regarding certain situations.”
The group advice and encouragement are just the start of the process, according to Kelle Walters, senior mortgage banker for Flat Branch Home Loans, who also records the group’s minutes. “So the following meeting we have accountability, and we check back in,” she says. “Did you go ahead and start that newsletter, or did you contact that Web design person? Did you talk to that employee?”
The sensitive nature of WIN discussions requires a high level of trust and understanding, which is important to all the members. For Alison Sower, owner of CoMo Massage, sharing with the other members of WIN often makes her feel better about herself, both professionally and personally. “Although I’ve been successful many times in life, I sometimes struggle with self-confidence,” she says. “To be around women who also admit to having those feelings at times makes you feel good. It’s nice to know that you’re normal.”
Building trust within the group is the key to its success, and that trust leads to referrals, says Becky Goodrick, independent senior sales director for Mary Kay. “We all know one another as a person and an individual, so the leads part comes naturally,” she says.
Part of the team
To join Columbia WIN, a woman needs to be self-employed and derive the majority of her income from her business, whether through commission or salary. “This is because we feel those who are self-employed have a different interest, value and dedication to their business,” Myers says. There is also an attendance requirement, and dues are $50 a year.
Typically individuals are invited by a WIN member. Jessica Stannard, owner of Natural Nail Care Salon, was invited by Timberlake. “At first I wasn’t interested because I felt my business was kind of private; I didn’t want to share my troubles and struggles, that sort of thing with anyone,” Stannard says. But she quickly changed her mind after attending one of the meetings. “We help and support one another. I gather the information from the others and then see where it suits my life and business.” Because of this backend support, WIN members also agree not to join another networking group.
“Everybody’s input is really important to everyone else’s success, and we all learn from someone else’s focus because the basis of running a good business is pretty much the same,” Myers says.
Andrea Kenney, owner of Travel by Design, agrees, stressing that as she works in a rapidly changing industry, the group has been invaluable. “When I started, there was no Internet, and there were lots of big commissions, and now those commissions are so much smaller,” she says. “I can throw those sorts of things out to this group and receive an invaluable wealth of information.”
Monica Pitts, graphic designer and owner of MayeCreate Design, particularly appreciates the focus part of the meetings. “After a good focus session, I think everyone leaves feeling energized because you just had the opportunity to help a friend and realize that everyone in the room is a human being facing challenges just like yours every day,” she says.
Melanie Spradling, owner of Spradling Home Inspections and a WIN member for five years, is continually impressed by the professionalism of the group. “I liked the group because it was a family of women professionals with all the same goals of being the best we could be to meet the needs of our clients, our co-workers and our employees,” she says. She also appreciates the wealth of knowledge each woman brings to the group. For instance Pitts helped her redesign her Web page, polish her newsletter and enhance her blogging skills. Also, by knowing each member personally, she readily refers her clients to other WIN members.
For Madalyn Gramke, financial adviser for Edward Jones, WIN members not only provide support when she needs to talk things through, but the members have also helped her recognize underlying fears and bring them to the forefront. “This group has helped me shape my business tremendously,” she says. “It has also been instrumental in my personal life. I was 23 when I started my office; being younger, I was a bit naïve. My husband wasn’t working at the time, and I had my first child. Having the group during that time was extremely helpful, letting me see that you can be a working mom and the breadwinner at the same time and not go crazy.”
For Myers, this desire and ability to help one another is what makes their group unique. But it’s also a reason to stay small. So although they are always on the lookout for new members, they are not actively recruiting. “We have to make sure everyone in the group has the opportunity to their focus time,” she says. “If we got too big, we’d have to split into subgroups, and then we would lose our cohesiveness.”
‘It can be done’
It’s not all work and no play for the members of Columbia WIN. “We have personal group socials where it is just our group that goes and does an unwinding activity,” Spradling says. “We also have public socials where each of us can invite a friend or prospective member, and we just have fun.” Additionally, WIN members participate in philanthropic activities such as the annual Pascal’s Pals event, which raises money to help alleviate the financial burden of children and families staying at University of Missouri Women and Children’s Hospital.
For Walters, the commitment of the members to the group is what she appreciates most. “It’s nice to be with a group of women who are really dedicated, and every day they leave here, they want to be the best they can be,” she says.
Gramke says the group also serves as a reminder that women can be themselves and still succeed. “You can still be feminine, raise your family and also get through the down times with a strong group supporting you,” she says.
Overall, Columbia WIN members say they value being part of a supportive group that’s so much more than meets the eye. “You can be more selective when you reach a certain point in your career on who you want to spend your time and energy on,” says Marshelle Clark, broker/Realtor with Weichert Realtors. “I really appreciate this group of women.”
Perhaps Timberlake best sums up the group’s feelings. “There are lots of women out there working and doing it all, keeping it together and being successful,” she says.” It can be done. I think as a group, we can encourage other women if we can somehow get that message out to them.”