Two decades before Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote the best-seller "Lean In," urging women to empower themselves at work, a handful of female leaders in Baltimore joined forces to do the same thing.
Network 2000, a statewide nonprofit, was launched in 1993 with a mission to promote the advancement of women in executive and leadership positions, and provide them guidance to help them succeed.
Over the years, the organization's ranks have grown to 84 members — mostly women — who are, among other things, CEOs, bank presidents, judges, heads of nonprofits and entrepreneurs.
Members, who join by invitation, meet monthly to tackle issues centered around gender equality in the workplace on a local and national level.
"Progress has been made in our country, but there's more work to do," Jane Allan Bowie, a onetime insurance and banking professional who serves as executive director, said, adding, "It's a process."
Bowie said nationally, 15 percent to 16 percent of directors in publicly held companies are women, and the numbers "haven't budged" in about a decade.
"The needle is moving some," Bowie said. "Hopefully we're almost at the tipping point."
In the business community, Network 2000 members have advocated for the placement of women on corporate boards, for instance. They are eager to help recruiters identify women with executive-level talent.
They host various events to educate the public about the benefits of women in decision-making positions, including an annual Women of Excellence luncheon. The 20th annual celebration in November featured Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis, known for her female-empowering roles in "Thelma & Louise" and the TV show "Commander in Chief."
Network 2000 members also serve as role models and mentors to women seeking to advance their careers.
"The opportunity to mentor women and see them rise from midlevel to senior level is very important to me," said Mary Louise Preis, a retired regulatory attorney and former state delegate who joined the group about a decade ago and now chairs the philanthropy committee. "It's been wonderful."
Several Network 2000 members said they have formed friendships and provided mutual support to each other, jibing with the organization's overall mission. They have also given generously to other groups that have demonstrated a commitment to enhancing the lives of women and girls.
In 2013, Network 2000 awarded more than $11,000 in grants to three recipients "whose vision aligned with our mission," Bowie said. There were 17 applicants.
Earlier this year, the organization announced a new call for proposals from eligible nonprofits in Maryland for a total of $10,000 in potential grants. The application deadline is March 14; winners will be notified in May.
The Center for Remarkable Women in Pikesville was among the organizations that received grant money last year.
Since 2010, the center has worked to equip more than 700 girls and women with life skills, using group activities and educational forums. The nonprofit also hosts community-focused events, such as a recent health fair.
"We have a big, big vision," the Rev. Valerie Pearson, who founded and runs the group, said. "The $6,000 grant [Network 2000] gave us was extremely helpful."
The money has enabled the center to launch a leadership institute aimed at female entrepreneurs, Pearson said.
"We hope to grow it and have a stand-alone [enterprise] one day," she added
Additionally, Notre Dame of Maryland University received funding from Network 2000 that will provide money for students to attend professional association meetings.
My Sister's Circle, a Timonium-based nonprofit that mentors girls from disadvantaged Baltimore neighborhoods, rounded out the grant awardees, receiving $4,000.
"We're trying to help young women reach their fullest potential," Heather Harvison, founder and executive director, said, adding, "We begin working with girls around the sixth grade and prepare them for personal and academic success."
While My Sister's Circle's work has been profiled on NBC's "Today" show and other media outlets, Harvison acknowledged fundraising can be challenging.
"Every little bit helps," she said, adding the money is being used for initiatives that steer girls and young women toward college, graduate school and their career goals.
"In all we do, we're trying to empower women."
For more information on how to apply for Network 2000 grants, go to http://www.network2000md.org/philanthropy.