Women's networking groups change with the times, but relationships never go out of style

When real estate agent Bev Smith began looking for a networking group around 12 years ago, the search was intimidating. Some groups had strict rules or were too exclusive — inviting only one woman of one profession per group — while others didn’t focus enough on building personal relationships.

Fellow professionals told Smith, now 56*, about the Chesapeake Professional Women’s Network, one of the largest all-female networking groups in the area. There were seasoned entrepreneurs, consultants, mothers who were returning to the workforce, recent graduates and professionals who were transitioning from one job to another, Smith said. Years later, she’s the president of the 22-year-old network.

Like Smith, hundreds of women in the Baltimore area have joined all-female networking groups and attended their events with the aim of building relationships in a comfortable setting. Those groups and their functions have evolved over time —plenty of them form online, at least initially — but the fundamental purpose remains: “It’s tapping into each other’s base of knowledge to help,” Smith said.

Wendy Murphy, associate professor of management at Babson College and author of the “Strategic Relationships at Work,” said groups centered on identity have come into fashion within the past 30 years because it’s easy to connect with like-minded individuals.

Faith Wachter, a social media marketing consultant and the president of the Business Women’s Network of Howard County, agreed, noting that “there’s a certain comfort level among women.”

For some women, co-ed networking can be intimidating. Murphy said some have been especially apprehensive about building professional relationships in the era of #MeToo, which has affected how people — women, especially — choose to socialize professionally.

Others have been hesitant to cold call, email or connect with others online, because “you don’t always know what the response is going to be, and it’s not always professional,” Wachter said, so they turn to women-only groups.

Networking today is far more strategic than it once was, according to Smith. Gone are the days when people merely traded business cards, collecting them in stacks on their desks.

Today, networking is about making intentional, personal connections without spreading oneself thin, said Wachter, 50.

“It’s about active giving — How can I help you? How can you help me?” she said.

Local women professionals have also built robust networks online through social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin, and have used websites like Eventbrite to schedule events. While some groups are based exclusively online, others use it as a starting point or an extension of their in-person offerings — posting jobs, referrals and updates on members and events in between their meetings.

Linda Schenk, 45, marketing strategist and designer, has facilitated several groups online, including the Jewish Community Services Entrepreneurs and Business Meetup, and another meetup group strictly for female professionals. The internet has made it easy to find, share and create such events, share relevant professional content, connect with other professionals and make introductions.

“It’s been an exponential kind of change. Now, with social media you can reach a lot more people with very little effort,” Smith said.

Tammira Lucas, 31, of Middle River, created the online Meetup group Baltimore Mom Entrepreneurs in response to the lack of networking opportunities for that demographic. While the 40-member group communicates largely online, Lucas, owner of parent coworking space The Cube, hosts monthly midday networking events, allowing stay-at-home moms and mothers with unconventional schedules to gather (baby sitters provided).

Still, social media has not served as a replacement for in-person communication, said Smith, who referred to the medium as “antiseptic.”

“You can’t really get that face-to-face contact and learn about somebody sitting over a cup of a coffee, glass of wine or something after work,” she said. “You just don’t get that same connection.”

Lucas, who has been networking since starting her first business around 15 years ago, said that the number of networking events that bring people face-to-face has seemed to decrease with the advent of social media. More value has been placed on online popularity and less on in-person communication, which means people have become less adept at socializing with strangers.

“It can be a hindrance to business,” she said, and building an enduring relationship or networking exclusively online is rare, according to Murphy.

“It’s just a starting point or a way to keep up with what people are doing,” she said. Offline is where “the really interesting interactions happen.”

While all-women networking groups have their benefits, they can also pose challenges, according to Murphy.

There’s a fear that female-only networking groups can be insular or create environments that might not translate well to workplaces that are commonly unisex, Murphy said, so much so that major companies like Deloitte have scrapped professional women and minority groups because they felt members weren’t forming relationships with people outside of those circles.

But for Smith and others in all-female networking groups, it’s safe to say they’ve found their tribe.

“When women gather, magic happens,” she said. “We make it happen.”

Tips for networking

Find the networking group that works for you. The styles of networking groups can vary. Some are more casual, while others require business attire. Some organize happy hours, while others meet first thing in the morning and forbid alcohol. “You have to find what feels right,” marketing strategist Linda Schenk said. “Getting a little out of your comfort zone is good — that’s how growth happens — but if it’s really not right for you, find something else that works for you.”

Set aside one-on-one time. A major part of networking is getting to know the people around you. Ask people you’re interested in for a coffee date or breakfast to get to know them or to learn more about their business and how you can be of assistance, said Bev Smith, president of the Chesapeake Professional Women’s Network.

Relax. Faith Wachter, president of the Business Women’s Network of Howard County, compares networking to a party. “There’s no pressure in trying to get to know every single person in a party,” she said. “Just try to gravitate toward to a group. Enjoy the convo where you’re comfortable. Save the elevator speech for the shark tank.”

Listen to other people. “It can’t just be about you. It really has to be about that active listening,” said Wachter. “Listen to what other people are saying, and listen to how you can help them.”

Be open and friendly. Show people that you’re interested in networking and helping your counterparts, Schenk said. If you’re looking for a conversation starter, an icebreaker can be as simple as a compliment or asking about how they heard about the event. A smile will also go a long way, Schenk said, but keep your approach genuine.

Make goals for every networking event. Networking can be a time suck if you don’t know what you’re looking for, so don’t just mindlessly collect business cards or go to an event that doesn’t serve your goals, Schenk said. “You can really do less with more if you’re strategic,” Schenk said. Your first goal at your networking event might be to feel more comfortable when socializing, practicing your elevator pitch, or looking for business advice, she said.

Allow relationships to evolve naturally. This means holding off on asking for a job or mentorship within the first few minutes of a conversation. Some new connections need more time to develop, said Wendy Murphy, associate professor of management at Babson College — so keep the conversation going.

Follow up and be persistent. Schenk advised contacting people who left an impression on you. Follow up within a week or two, and add them on Linkedin to reinforce a connection. But don’t get discouraged if you don’t receive a response, Murphy said. People get busy, and “there [are] lots of people out there that can help you,” Murphy said.

Implement what you learned. If you think your work is done after attending a networking event, you’re wrong, Schenk said. If you received some advice for your business, be sure to implement it, or it’s time wasted.

bbritto@baltsun.com

twitter.com/brittanybritto

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*A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Bev Smith's age. She is 56. The Sun regrets the error.
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