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October 20, 2013

Networking To Call Their Own

PHOTO/EMILY MICUCCI About 100 women attended the September networking event hosted by Business Forward Females. (Inset) Karyn Polito, Polito Development Corp. president, was keynote speaker.

When it comes to professional equality for women, today's popular narrative often centers on themes of how far the working American woman has progressed since the feminist movement in the 1960s.

But some of the latest statistics on the topic could take even the most positive outlook down a notch. Take, for example, the percentage of female CEOs running Fortune 500 companies: According to Catalyst, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes women in business, that figure is just 4.2 percent in 2013. In politics, women make up just 18.1 percent of the U.S. Congress, says the Center for American Progress. And for more than 10 years, American women have earned an average of 77 cents to every dollar American men earned, according to U.S. Census data.

With women comprising nearly half of the U.S. workforce, the question of how to level the playing field has befuddled many. But in MetroWest, grassroots efforts to create business networking opportunities geared specifically toward women may help tip the scales on a local level.

Corridor Nine Rejuvenates Female Business Community

Many area chambers of commerce have women's networking subgroups, but Business Forward Females, a new organization launched by the Corridor Nine Area Chamber of Commerce, has breathed new life into the female business community in Westborough and surrounding towns.

Chamber Vice President Karen Chapman said Corridor Nine had explored establishing a women-only networking group for a long time, as women seemed underrepresented at after-hours events that often conflict with family-related duties, “and the reason we didn't do it is we were looking for some true leadership to own this program,” Chapman said.

Then, two chamber volunteers stepped forward to chair the program, taking the burden off the small Corridor Nine staff, and Business Forward Females, or BFF, was launched. It's mission is to hold monthly luncheon networking meetings for chamber members, with each event featuring a keynote speaker to address pertinent topics, like negotiating a pay raise and achieving work-life balance.

The first meeting took place this past spring, and organizers were thrilled when turnout exceeded expectations. They were hoping about 30 or 40 would attend the inaugural luncheon in May; instead a crowd twice the size turned out, according to Chapman.

Polito: No Whining

About 100 women attended September's event featuring comments from Karyn Polito, the former Republican state representative who now runs Polito Development Corp. in Shrewsbury. There, Polito recalled being the victim of what she said were sexist comments during a radio interview some years back, which she said speaks to the challenges women still face in their professional lives.

“Women cannot whine. Women need to stay focused, talk about the issues, and that is what I did,” Polito said.

The warm reception for BFF isn't surprising, according to Chapman. She thinks women in business are “doing OK,” but being a member of the working world is still a greater challenge than it is for men. That's because women are often juggling most of the responsibilities at home with those of the office life.

“I think they're looking for a strong support system,” Chapman said. “I think they also still want to address issues they don't want to talk about with a man.”

Walking A Fine Line?

Attending a BFF event is akin to hanging out on the golf course with the guys from the office. Women trade business cards and make new connections, but they also talk about their children and raffle off white wine to be sipped at the end of a long week. With a decidedly girly vibe — and acronym — does a segregated group like BFF highlight the notion that women and men are different, and perhaps will never be viewed as equal business counterparts?

“We've had that debate, if you will, many, many times,” Chapman said. But the numbers don't lie, and with women still coming up short in the workforce by several measures, Chapman conceded the glass ceiling has yet to be shattered, so forums like these are necessary.

It's also a good opportunity for the chamber to revitalize its membership and add new members. Denise Kapulka, a chamber ambassador who co-chairs BFF and is sales manager for Knight's Airport Limousine in Shrewsbury, has often heard from women that they'd like to get more involved with the chamber, but the timing of events either early in the morning or in the evening were inconvenient. And as chambers strive to boost their numbers in an economy in which businesses have less money and time to spend on chamber activities, it may be more crucial than ever to maximize outreach.

Complementary Networking

Of course, participating in BFF or another women's networking group at a neighboring chamber, like the MetroWest Chamber of Commerce in Framingham or the Middlesex West Chamber of Commerce in Acton, should be complemented with conventional networking activities, according to Kapulka.

“All of us still do a lot of networking with men,” Kapulka said. But she thinks it's easier, particularly for younger women just entering the professional world, to make business inroads with their female peers. Now 39, she recalled attending her first chamber meeting in her mid-20s, and being completely overwhelmed by the hundreds of people milling about, exchanging business cards.

“I'm that girl that's standing in the corner, afraid to talk to anyone,” Kapulka recalled.

For many entrepreneurs, becoming involved in a women's networking group is just another opportunity to get business through word-of-mouth advertising. That was the case for Rita Kapur, who attended BFF's September meeting to promote her new yoga studio that recently opened on Lyman Street in Westborough.

“I'm not partial to women-only networking groups, but it seemed like a good opportunity,” Kapur said.

Farther north, in Harvard, another women's networking group has been meeting for 15 years, though this one, the Women's Business Network, is an independent group formed by a handful of women who were running small businesses in Harvard in the mid-1990s. Renee Senes, an investment advisor with the Concord firm Senes & Chwalek Financial Advisors, was a founding member and still leads the group's steering committee today.

Now with 70 members, Senes said Women's Business Network has expanded from mostly home-based business owners to include those who work outside the home. At each meeting, the group discusses a chosen topic, like managing social media or using technology for business.

Unlike the Corridor Nine group leaders, Senes doesn't think most women struggle to make it to traditional networking events. But they do appreciate the camaraderie of a women's-only group.

“I don't think these replace the traditional events,” Senes said. “I just think they're in addition to.”

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