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Sisters networking for themselves

Monday, 7 March 2011 | By Alexandra Cain

Female EntrepreneursChanges to working patterns, the new paid parental leave scheme and a generation that’s well educated and business-savvy is set to propel ever-increasing numbers of women to start-up their own companies.


However, female entrepreneurs still face challenges that often aren’t encountered by men.


Experts say women are much more reluctant than their male counterparts to promote themselves and their business.


Plus, although women are great at nurturing others, they often don’t reach out and ask for help when they are starting a business. The result, especially for those who work from home, can be an intense sense of isolation.


But it doesn’t need to be like that. There are literally scores of networking and mentoring programs to help women who are thinking about starting a business, as well as those who have already begun their entrepreneurial journey.


Some groups are focused on particular industry sectors, while others are there to help support businesswomen located in a particular geographical area.


Finding the right network


‘There are so many female business networking groups out there, it’s just a matter of finding a group you feel comfortable being in, depending on your industry sector and location,” says Sue Heins, who runs the Inspiring Women mentoring program for women in small and micro business, and is also involved in a NSW state government-sponsored mentoring program on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.


Heins’ advice for women looking at becoming part of a networking group is to join a group of like-minded women, but to also find a network that includes people in your target market.


“If your target is larger firms, join a network that includes people from that sphere,” she says.


Catriona Pollard is co-founder of Social Media Women, a free networking forum which was started in 2010 as a place for women to learn from other women with experience using social media.


“Speakers and attendees at social media events are often male and Social Media Women is a safe environment where women can feel comfortable asking the stupid questions,” she says.


Events are held on the second Tuesday of every month, and focus on topics like how to use LinkedIn or get involved in Wikipedia. Members can also access online resources such as articles and reports and can also contribute to a discussion forum. The group has more than 800 members on its Facebook page and around 60 women attend each monthly meeting.


“It’s an amazing network and members feel immediately welcome,” Pollard says.


Bridging the training gap


One of the most extensive networking groups available for female entrepreneurs is the Australian Businesswomen’s Network, which is a series of mentoring programs and support groups for businesswomen and boasts 20,000 members.


Its flagship offering is the MentorNet mentoring program for female entrepreneurs, which has been running since 2007, and connects women in business with mentors and training over a six-month period.


More than 300 women have completed the program so far.


Community director Suzi Dafnis says the program is for “women who have run their business for more than six months, rather than people who just have an idea for a business.”


“The program trains participants in business planning and financial management, marketing, human resources and performance management.”


The 26-week program includes fortnightly mentoring and online training. The beauty of the program is that it’s available nationwide.


Topics covered can include how to hire your first staff member, how to do a competitor analysis, how to develop a vision for the business and how to do a SWOT analysis.


“You can be part of the program from anywhere in Australia, as long as you have access to the internet,” Dafnis explains.


The outcome of the program is a fully developed business plan.


One graduate of the MentorNet program is Annalisa Holmes, who runs The Transcription People, a business that transcribes audio recordings to text.


She says the program was invaluable in helping her “establish business processes and put a business plan in place.”


“Each week I would have set tasks to complete to build up my business processes, which was great, because if you work at home it’s too easy to work in the business, not on it. It helped me develop clear goals and also to feel part of a community.”


Government help


There is also a range of government programs available to support women in business.


For example, Michelle Allen, who runs web development business webstuff.biz is part of the NSW Central Coast’s Business Enterprise Centre’s mentoring program to help businesswomen develop their web and social media presence.


The program includes a series of seminars on topics such as how to build a web site and how to start selling online.


It also includes one-on-one mentoring, which Allen helps deliver. “I give people advice about how to be more successful online and how to start a website,” she says.

There are also special support groups for ‘mumpreneurs’ – women with children who also run businesses.


Two such groups are Working Mums’ Masterclass and Mumpreneur Masterclass, run by Penny Webb, who also has her own training, event management and consulting businesses and who has two toddlers.


Typically between 20 and 25 women attend each event, and Webb has purposely kept groups small so attendees get one-on-one time with guest speakers.


She started the group because, “I felt so isolated at home and I realised I had to get out there and network with other women in a similar position,” she says.


Webb started her business after the pressures of full-time work became too onerous, but now has an equally hectic workload running her own business.


Just before she went on maternity leave for her second child, she felt obligated to attend to teleconferences and phone calls on her days off and, once she had her baby, was almost immediately pressured to return to her role.


“I knew that with the cost of childcare being what it was for two children and considering the amount I got paid would be swallowed up by those costs, I decided to go it alone and run my own business from home around my children.”


“Initially they were in day care one day a week, now they are in two days a week, as the business starts to pay for itself,” says Webb.


“I only work when the children are at day care, at my mum’s or asleep, which means my day starts at 5.00am when I get two hours done before they wake up, and finishes at about 10.30pm when I get three more hours done after they go to sleep.”


“I also have managed to get them to sleep at the same time in the afternoon and I get a couple of hours done then. So I average around a seven-hour day most days and then I make up extra time on the weekend when my husband is home.”


“It's hard and constant work, but I have never been happier or more in love with my family and what I do,” she explains.


Mentoring from close to home


Of course, formal networking isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Female entrepreneurs who prefer a less formal approach should also remember to leverage their friends and family to provide support as they embark on their business journey.


Liz Rowell was a formal mentor of the Australian Businesswomen’s Network’s Marketing Women mentoring program for two years, but has also mentored friends who have started their own business.


For the past five years she has also run her own business, Red Ark Marketing.


“Women are more challenged when it comes to networking than men… they tend to separate their business and personal life, while men still have the old boys’ network to rely on.”


“The challenge for women is to talk themselves up a bit more and learn to be a bit more ruthless when it comes to staffing and making sure everyone in their team is pulling their weight,” says Rowell.


“I’ve been a mentor to two friends who have started businesses… the first 12 months is very difficult and one made it and the other didn’t.”


“But in spite of all the difficulties you face when you’re starting out, being in business is incredibly rewarding.”


“There are networks out there you can draw on and the most important thing to remember is that if you don’t have a crack, you’ll never know,” she says.


Falling barriers?


Interestingly, Rowell says the socio-economic barriers to females setting up a business are disappearing.


“Many women go into business for themselves because they think they will have greater flexibility and work/life balance, particularly if they have kids,” she says.


“Personally my work life/balance has deteriorated since setting up my business – but the financial crisis can be blamed in some measure for that.”


“I think women may be less risk averse than men, by which I mean that you don't just play with your own life when you set up a business, you also feel responsible for the lives (and mortgages) of your staff.”


“So emotionally that's a big consideration – if you fail, will you bring others down with you? And how will that make you feel?


“[Celebrity chef] Heston Blumenthal once said he was more motivated by fear of failure than dreams of success and I can empathise.”


“You see male entrepreneurs crash, burn, walk away and start-up again the next day. I don't think women can be as cavalier about that process.”


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