Ladies’ networking groups have come a long way these past few decades, as the needs and roles of woring women have evolved. Meet a few of our region’s top gatherings and see how they make a positive impact.
Early in their careers, Pat Szpekowski and Madalena J.V. Lawrence didn’t have networking groups to help them generate business leads and build relationships with other women professionals. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the workplace was largely a male-dominated arena not unlike Don Draper’s world in “Mad Men.”
“I was a CPA, and I worked with men,” says Lawrence. “There weren’t many women in the field back in 1974, when I joined, so I didn’t really have any women cohorts to talk about business – it was just always men.”
When the pair recruited women for their own networking group in 1984 – what’s known today as WIM Fox Valley (WIM-FV) – they found an eager audience of women who faced the same challenges in career advancement.
“Spring Hill Mall was one of the biggest employers in Dundee, and we got the manager of the mall to join, along with several stores,” says Szpekowski, who’s now president of PmS Advertising Inc./PR Strategies, in Elgin. “These women just wanted the connection with other women.”
How the world can change in a few decades.
Women have broken through many “glass ceilings” and today are employed in many fields once dominated by men. In financial services, for example, nearly 53 percent of employees are women, according to a 2012 report by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Women now make up nearly 52 percent of managers and professional titles, and nearly 38 percent of professional women now hold college degrees – up from 11 percent in 1970.
Ladies’ networking groups have evolved along with the working woman. Such groups now exist in most every community around Northwest Chicagoland, and their membership is a testament to women’s accomplishments: corporate executives and managers, leaders of nonprofit organizations, small-business owners, young professionals beginning their careers.
Inside these groups, women can generate business leads and build lasting relationships with like-minded women. At the same time, it’s an opportunity to reinvigorate those who maintain an impressive juggling act with their personal and professional lives.
“Our design is to empower a woman’s entire life – mind, body, spirit,” says Pamela Strelcheck, program director for Women in McHenry County (WIM3), a WIM-FV counterpart. “We live in a time when everything is so stressful, especially women’s work lives, and our stress comes from everywhere. We need to find our balance and get that back, so we try to support that balance through our speakers.”
How it Works
Strelcheck’s group meets on the third Thursday of the month for breakfast at 31 North Banquets, in McHenry. The group begins around 7:30 a.m. with introductions and a meal, followed by a speaker. Often, the guest is a local, leading woman who can share timely topics such as women’s health, identifying personal strengths and balancing both work and personal life. Most programs and workshops relate to the needs of a professional woman.
“Last year, we had a female gynecologist speak,” says Strelcheck. “She talked about how a woman should connect with her doctor. She was awesome, as she spoke about the confidence that a woman needs to talk with her doctor about whatever she might be experiencing.”
Members are between ages 30 and 60, most older than 40, says Strelcheck. Members often establish business leads, but there’s more to the group than referrals.
“I believe that, yes, our organization will help to generate referrals for you, but it’s more about building relationships with the other women,” says Strelcheck, who’s been in the group for about six years. “Referrals come naturally from those relationships, because you have to trust your colleague or friend in order to make a good reference.”
The Geneva Women in Business (GWIB), sponsored by the city’s chamber of commerce, seeks to empower women’s business skills. Their monthly luncheon meetings focus on networking and educational speakers who highlight business concerns, such as technology strategies, marketing and work/life balance.
President Elizabeth Spicher, who owns Integrated Natural Medicine in Geneva, has found the group helps her to engage with the community while networking and forming new relationships. As a side benefit, she’s also able to promote the business she owns with her husband, Eric.
“I think with each year I’m getting to know people at a deeper level, and becoming more comfortable using their resources,” she says. “I feel more comfortable now referring friends and patients to these people – that’s the deeper value of networking.”
A GWIB member for about three years, Spicher also has developed useful professional skills through her involvement.
“It’s really forced me out of my comfort zone,” she says. “Being president of GWIB has helped me become more comfortable in speaking engagements as well as time management. Getting to know ladies one-on-one helps me to form relationships and build a referral network. I believe our group allows the same for all of our management.”
The group maintains about 80 to 100 members, with about 50 to 70 attending any given event. Like Spicher, many of them have grown just by sharing personal insights with each other.
“These women have their own families, and their own businesses, because a lot are business owners,” says Spicher, who estimates that 70 percent of GWIB members own their own companies. “They have other duties and they’re also involved in multiple groups, so finding that work/life/networking balance is important, because you need all three to flourish.”
Where GWIB networks from a business and educational angle, the Barrignton Women’s Biz Net (WBN), sponsored by the Barrington Area Chamber of Commerce, places socialization and networking hand-in-hand. The group meets monthly for luncheon networking at The Garlands of Barrington, but also hosts breakfast and evening get-togethers. No matter the setting, women can find common allies amongin the group, says president Suzanne Luby.
“When women are in the room together, they see each other as possible business partners, so, for example, someone may turn to me for questions on a housing need,” says Luby, a broker associate with @properties/The Luby Group, in Barrington. “There was a woman at last week’s meeting who’s in the window treatment business. She could be a power partner for me, because how many times have I worked with someone who has a home listed and needs some help with their window treatments?”
Luby says about 30 to 40 women show up for any meeting, some young professionals, some longtime members and business owners. It’s an ideal setting for mentorship.
“I see them there, quietly encouraging each other,” says Luby, who’s been part of the group for several years. “I see them offering positive suggestions to each other, and if one has something that’s worked, they’re not hesitant to share it.”
Entrepreneurship is a family affair for Luby, who’s sold Barrington-area real estate for nearly 25 years. Her son has sold real estate in Chicago and Barrington for more than a decade. Her daughter, too, has sold real estate and launched a blog called 365barrington.
Throughout her career, Luby has witnessed and seized upon the unique soft skills that women bring to the workplace: high energy, ability to juggle multiple priorities, perseverance, patience and a willingness to collaborate. She sees those same powers at work in WBN. Although men are welcomed to attend or speak, it’s the women who benefit most.
“Certainly there are some issues that are unique to women that they might feel more comfortable discussing with other women,” says Luby. “And, I suppose shopping and having lunch is something that women gravitate to more than the men.”
Sharing the stage with men doesn’t bother Spicher, whose husband sometimes shows up to GWIB meetings in her place.
“We do have a handful of men, and that’s awesome,” she says. “It livens things up a little bit and can bring a different perspective to the group.”
The Women Building Working Relationships group is sponsored by the Crystal Lake Chamber of Commerce and is exclusive to women. Its monthly luncheons at Park Place Banquets, in Crystal Lake, draw a variety of professional women and business owners. The group’s ultimate mission: promote greater awareness and understanding of ongoing issues and challenges that women face in business. During meetings, women can share, connect and build relationships while learning and collaborating through all stages of business development.
“It gives the women involved an opportunity to connect on issues more directed toward women in business,” says Deidre Martinez, group liaison and membership development manager for the chamber. “Sometimes, men and women approach things differently. The end goals are the same, but how we get to those goals may vary. This provides an outlet we may not otherwise have.”
At the same time, it’s a place where women can provide a support network in an environment that’s safe for swapping best practices and promoting each other’s businesses.
“It’s helped me to build great relationships,” says Martinez. “We’re all experts in something, and it gives us an opportunity to learn about each other’s experiences and backgrounds, while sharing that wealth of knowledge with others.”
Strelcheck sees that same cooperative spirit in her own group, which also welcomes men as speakers and guests.
“Women feel a special connection with each other – there’s a bond,” she says. “There’s a bond that’s invisible, that women feel and in which they feel comfortable opening up, and growing.”
But, she adds, men provide an essential support system. “Men have a lot to provide, and for myself, personally, I have a great mentor in my husband,” says Strelcheck, who works alongside her husband, a longtime Crystal Lake chiropractor. “I take great knowledge from my husband and I convert it into action, and I make it my own. I think men are great for taking action. But there’s nothing like the bond that women have.”
Advancing the Next Generation
At first, Szpekowski wasn’t sold on women’s networking in the early 1980s. “A lot of women thought like I did, that I don’t want to join a women’s lib group,” she recalls. “There was this connotation that you were going to be confrontational, but that’s not what this was at all.”
What she discovered was a group of supportive and inspiring women, all dedicated to strengthening other women in the workplace. In the 30 years that Szpekowski has been part of the group, which meets every second Thursday of the month at Elgin Country Club, she’s met everyone from male manufacturers to pioneering women in business.
“One of the most popular talks was with Mrs. Marcelle Bear of Bearco Inc. in Elgin. She and her family own 17 McDonald’s restaurants throughout the Chicago suburbs and Elgin area,” says Szpekowski. “She was one of the very first women franchise owners, and she was so inspirational, talking about coming from Europe and getting a job, and working with Ray Kroc. And to think that she’s local.”
Leaders like Szpekowski and Lawrence have set a prominent stage for the next generation. Unlike that “Mad Men” workplace that baby boomers entered, Gen Xers and millennials have experienced a very different portrait of the working woman.
When Lawrence and Szpekowski started their careers in the mid-1970s, a little more than 40 percent of all women were in the labor force – and that was up from just 30 percent in the late 1940s, according to the BLS. About 80 percent of men were in the labor force.
Today, more than half of women work, and those who do contribute nearly 40 percent of their family’s income. About one-third of women earn more than their husbands. For young, entry-level employees, accomplished professional women are a norm.
“I have two sons, 31 and 28, and I see the women they meet and date,” says Lawrence. “My son is getting married, and I’m amazed where his fiancee has gone in advertising – New York, Chicago and now California. She’s barely 30 years old and already very successful. I’m just amazed and proud. My sons don’t have any problem working with or for women. That’s how we’ve changed, for the better, and I’m very excited.”
Unfortunately, not all networking groups have survived this evolution. WIM-FV in Elgin is now an independent organization, once part of a strong national network of women’s groups, founded in Chicagoland 40 years ago. The national organization folded in 2011.
How did the Elgin group survive? By evolving with the working woman. Today, it’s open to women professionals and focuses on women, inspiration and mentorship.
“A lot of women need that, as they get out of college and get into the workforce,” says Lawrence. “They need some help, guidance and mentoring. They need to see where they can go. There are so many avenues out there. They need to open their eyes to the possibilities they can pursue.”
Women in McHenry County is similarly embracing mentorship, as it evolves from its connection with the national WIM.
“We’re trying to connect with the younger spectrum, because they’re going to teach us,” says Strelcheck. “They’re going to learn a lot from us, but we’re going to learn a lot from them, too.”
As the Crystal Lake group moves toward mentorship programming, it’s proving to be a valuable training ground for the entrepreneurs of the future.
“We’d really like to reach that younger generation of women and provide that level of expertise, so that when they go into business, they already have this baseline,” says Martinez. “They’ll have a toolbox they can pull out, when they need it.”
The Crystal Lake group is a little more than one year old, and just like more established groups, this one requires a strong commitment from its leaders and members.
“It’s not always easy to invest time and resources when we have so many other things on our plates, with work and family,” says Martinez.
Groups like the Barrington Biz Net and GWIB have started holding some meetings in the evenings and mornings to engage those who can’t get away for lunch. But they also struggle with the financial imperatives.
“After reviewing surveys from membership, we seek out speakers who can educate and inspire our group,” says Spicher. Most speakers do have a small fee, and we take this into consideration so we don’t have to raise members’ dues. At each meeting, we also have raffles to support local philanthropies in the area.”
Luby is no stranger to a diverse workplace. She works alongside her son and daughter, who both deliver fresh ideas and approaches to their mother’s real estate firm.
“When clients choose to work with us, they get a multi-generational approach,” she says. “They get my sage views, and my kids’ fresh input. We also get different perspectives from different genders, and that also is unique. We each have strengths in different venues, and so it’s a much more complete package.”
Those traditional values, where the man is the primary breadwinner and the woman is the stay-at-home mom, no longer apply to many working families. Men, it would seem, have evolved along with their partners.
“I see young men today with their families, and they’re every bit as involved taking care of those kids as the mothers are,” says Luby. “But historically, it’s been different.”
When Lawrence was raising her boys, her husband often worked long days and missed family dinners. Though she does see men taking on more family duties, she also recognizes that some tasks still fall on mom.
“As for women, they’re always going to have the same challenges as far as family and work,” she says. “There’s a lot more leniency in the workplace, to give women time to make sure their family life is good, because I think many companies found that if family life is good, then the employee’s work is going to be good.”
As part of that work/life balance, sometimes it helps to have a strong support network. When Szpekowski launched her advertising business in 1987, that network began with her supportive husband.
“He said, ‘try it and just go for it,’” she recalls. “But it was the women at WIM who became my first clients, so that gave me confidence and support.”
Networking groups aren’t just a place of support and advice. Sometimes, they’re the seed of revelation and professional enlightenment. Either way, they provide an encouraging environment for the busy working woman.
“I’m all about positive energy, and that’s what you get from our group – you can just feel it in the room,” says Strelcheck. “I grew from that, spiritually, and I also found out my purpose in life. It’s the big question on your mind, and I know that my purpose is to connect women. God put me on this earth to connect women and to watch them grow and blossom.”