Just four months after founding her Columbus (Ohio) Web-development company, then-28-year-old Christina Blenk feared she was about to lose everything. Her ads weren't working, her complicated sales pitch confused potential customers, and her clients -- well, there weren't any.
Then, when she reached the point of having only enough money to stay afloat for just two more months, Blenk made a move that would change her business forever. She joined every networking organization she could find, believing that if she could just make contact with people, they would buy her product.
The strategy worked. From the depths of despair in April, 1997, her company, At First Site, is now flourishing with 60 active clients and revenues of more than $400,000. "It is hard to underestimate the importance of networks," says Erik Pages, Policy Director for the National Commission of Entrepreneurship. "They are essential for learning how to start and grow a business."
But networking -- and breaking into existing networks -- poses a special challenge to women like Blenk, who concedes it wasn't easy getting out to market herself and find mentors. Women can often feel either isolated or unwelcome in traditional networking groups, she says.
So, with 9.1 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., according to the Small Business Administration, women are increasingly setting up their own, growing networks. NAWBO (National Association of Women Business Owners), NFWBO (National Federation of Women Business Owners), Network Executive Women in Hospitality, and American Business Women's Assn. are just a few of the national organizations that provide expertise to professional women -- while also helping them generate referrals. New ones form all the time.
Spring Board, for instance, a program that helps women pitch for venture capital, has flourished in just two years. President Amy Millman boasts of receiving more than 2,000 applications this year alone from women who want to become a part of the group's training activities. Older groups, meanwhile, are growing fast. The Anaheim (Calif.) chapter of the America Women's Business Assn. says it now runs a second meeting each month to accommodate an increase in members.
Blenk is part of that trend. After reaping the benefits of networking herself, she created a Web site called womanowned.com in 1997. (Blenk launched it as an experiment in site building and still doesn't try to make any money with it.) It provides its own women's business directory, expert advice, and a newsletter, and it offers an online networking experience to women business owners.
"I was noticing an old boy network. I was dealing with male professionals who were connected, networked. I wanted to provide women with an old girl's network online," says Blenk, whose site has drawn more than 100,000 women business owners as regular users.
Yet getting women to network isn't just a matter of convenience or easy-to-use technology. "Once women get their businesses to a certain size, they tend to isolate themselves," says Marcia Guberman, vice-president for Fleet Bank's Woman Entrepreneur's Connection. Remaining in a "comfort zone" prevents women entrepreneurs from getting the advice and support they need from other professionals, not to mention the chance to sell their company. "Those who stay in their own little world are missing the opportunity of being known and branding themselves," says Susan RoAne, author of The Secrets of Savvy Networking.
ALL SHE NEEDED.
What's the most you can expect from networking? For Sherris Kauffman, it remains her only means of marketing. Indeed, that's how Kauffman, the founder of Hospitality Management Training Institute in San Francisco, says she built her business. When she came up with the idea of a school focused on all divisions of hotel-industry management, Kauffman knew she would need political contacts to approve her proposal, good marketing plans to draw in students, and an accountant.
Kauffman found each of them and more in NAWBO and other networking organizations. Beyond practical matters, Kauffman says she also found emotional support. In women's groups she discusses issues she wouldn't touch in front of men, such as sexual discrimination in the workplace. "[Women] can talk to each other about the down-and-dirty stuff," says Kauffman.
Although they used networking to their benefit, both Blenk and Kauffman admit they had to overcome their fear of joining an organization and appearing inferior to older business owners. There's only one way past that, says Ivan Misner, CEO of Business Network International, an international organization with more than 2,000 chapters in 12 countries: "You have to get belly-to-belly with people." Once a female entrepreneur starts networking correctly, the only thing she stands to lose is her voice.
By Cynthia Daniels in New York
Edited by Fred Strasser