Move Over, Bohemian Grove

Belizean Grove is just one of the networking groups that have sprung up to serve top female execs

Women may not have a longstanding old-boy network to hook into for job leads, government appointments, or venture-capital deals, but they're rapidly making up for lost time. Groups of professionally accomplished women are building powerful networks of their own.

I saw this firsthand in January, when I was the only journalist to attend the first Belizean Grove retreat on Ambergris Caye in Belize, Central America. Belizean Grove is an invitation-only meeting of 29 women in business, government, and academe. It's modeled after the 130-year-old Bohemian Grove, an all-male encampment deep in the redwoods of Northern California. About 1,500 of America's corporate and government elite gather there each summer for two weeks of talks, discussions, recreation, and rituals.

Some women once sued to gain access to Bohemian Grove, to no avail. "We aren't waiting for an invitation to Bohemian Grove anymore, because we have our own," says Mary Lehman MacLachlan, president of Chicago's EnvestNet Group, a wealth-management network for financial advisers.

"READY TO GIVE." Belizean Grove was the brainchild of Susan Stautberg, president of PartnerCom, a New York firm that creates advisory boards for companies worldwide. Her criteria for admission? The women have to be "bright and accomplished, fun-loving, and have a sense of adventure," she says. Furthermore, "they have to be ready to give to their communities and to each other."

Participants included venture capitalists and entrepreneurs from Atlanta and Boston, fashion and dot-com executives from New York, and former top-level federal appointees from Washington D.C. Attendees spoke on panels that covered such topics as how to obtain money and power and use them to transform yourself and your community.

Once we arrived at this beachfront outpost, where cell phones don't work and Web connections are a boat ride away, the women quickly shed their professional personas with little prompting. While soaking in the hot tub and snorkeling with the sting rays, the women shared personal experiences and feelings. One 54-year-old woman spoke candidly to me of her three life-threatening kidney-transplant operations. Others spoke of ex-husbands who became financially dependent on their professional success.

The women's modus operandi contrasted sharply with that of powerful men, who often connect during a round of golf--and who, when they're not talking about their business activities, tend to talk about other things they do rather than how they feel. "When women get together without men, we engage in an extremely personal way, and our conversation is different," says Judy Rosener, a professor at the Graduate School of Management at the University of California at Irvine, who specializes in men and women at work.

By revealing themselves in such a way, "they create an emotional bond that will lead these women to help one another in any way they can," says Edie Weiner, president of a New York consulting firm that specializes in trend analysis. That desire to join together for a common good motivated participants to undertake several philanthropic efforts to benefit Belizean women.

I walked away from the gathering inspired. These women stressed cooperation and the need to help other women. You don't have to be an invitee to Belizean Grove--or any other elite networking group--to learn from their message.

Questions? Comments? E-mail or fax (212) 512-2538

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.