It’s all about connections

It’s all about connections

Networking, as defined by Merriam Webster, is the “exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions; the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business.” Developing leads and expanding contact lists are certainly good reasons for networking. But for those taking advantage of several women-specific opportunities in Maine to connect, it’s more than that.

“Yes, networking is about making connections and building relationships and is the first step to bringing in business, ultimately,” said Mandy Schumaker, who chairs the Portland chapter of the Maine Women’s Network. “But women do it differently. They often share and connect on a deeper level than men. Women are looking for a different thing.”

Karen Brace is the interim president and midcoast chapter chairwoman of the Maine Women’s Network. She is also the membership director for the PenBay Chamber of Commerce in Camden. She agrees with Schumaker.

“We’re in it together, we have common goals. There is a collective camaraderie and sharing of best practices with tips and ideas of what it is like to run a business,” said Brace. “But it’s not just advice, it’s also a good time and the sense of connection with each other is important. There’s also motivation and inspiration when we get together to talk about issues.”

The Maine Women’s Network, whose tagline is “connecting women from Kittery to Fort Kent,” has more than 1,500 members in its Portland, midcoast and Androscoggin chapters. Cost of membership is $60 annually. The organization’s mission is to “increase women’s professional growth and leadership skills through networking and education.”

Schumaker has been chairwoman of her chapter for two years and is also the CEO and founder of Higher Performing People, where she offers small-business coaching and training services. She finds that women like to “connect with other women and feel a part of a group while learning something and getting value out of the workshops and other offerings we have.”

The Portland chapter hosts a “Boost Your Business Breakfast” geared for entrepreneurs on the first Friday of the month at the Cumberland Club. Schumaker said the breakfast meeting offers practical tips that women can walk away with and use immediately.

The chapter’s monthly meeting on the second Tuesday, also at the Cumberland Club, alternates between a lunch and a dinner. On the third Thursday of each month an “Open Networking” event is held at the Top of the East at the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel, where professional women are able to connect in a more casual setting. Schumaker said guests are always welcome at Maine Women’s Network events.

“We have grown our chapter to 87 members and are serving 130 to 140 women a month. Non-members are welcome to come to events,” said Schumaker. “It has been exciting to see the growth. Maine Women’s Network is a wonderful place for women to meet and make connections or just listen to interesting speakers.”

Brace said that having regular speakers on various topics is educational and provides a way for women to get to know each other.

“We want to provide a forum for women in business of all sizes to meet people that are facing the same challenges,” said Brace. “Lots of businesses in Maine are run by one person. It’s important for those business owners to get out. And it can be comforting to collaborate and know you’re on the right track with plans for your business.”

The midcoast chapter hosts programs for its members on the first Wednesday of each month at 5:15 p.m. alternating between The Landings and The Speakeasy restaurants, both in Rockland, and Cappy’s Chowder House in Camden. The Androscoggin chapter generally meets on the second Wednesday of every month at the Hilton Garden Inn in Auburn at 11:30 a.m. for lunch and a program.

The Women’s Business Center at CEI, a private nonprofit engaged in rural business funding, development and financing, has five locations from Portland to Machias. The organization provides not only free business counseling, support and workshops on business issues for women, but also provides opportunities for networking with other business owners.

Betty Gensel, a counselor for CEI in its central and western Maine offices, said that although the Women’s Business Center is not focused on networking, it is an important piece of the work.

“We serve women business owners and support cross referrals, tailoring events and meetings to the needs of each area we serve,” said Gensel. “The value added (at our events) is in getting with other women, asking questions, receiving support and learning something. There is educational support to help women see the big picture and develop good networking skills. Women learn best in groups, talking about process.”

Women’s Business Center offers multiple monthly workshops at various locations in its service area. Each focuses on a specific topic with a person of expertise in the area being covered along with time for discussion and networking. Many of the workshops are free or low cost.

Gensel said it has been rewarding to watch women grow both their business and their self-assurance.

“I see women in small businesses learning, expanding a little, maybe adding a new angle to their business (through what they have learned). They say, ‘I know how to do that now,’” said Gensel. “Supporting women to develop their potential as business owners helps them to build confidence in their ability.”

Two other organizations in Maine led for and by women, while not focused on exchanging information or services, provide an opportunity to network through shared interests.

100+ Women Who Care Southern Maine is interested in supporting communities by contributing to local charities together as a group. Founder Deb Bergeron, whose full-time day job is as a life coach, said the organization is focused on women pooling their resources to make a larger impact.

The mission of the group is to find 100 or more women to each contribute $50 four times a year in order to give $20,000 or more annually to local charities. The group meets quarterly at the Woodfords Club in Portland.

“We’re outside the structured network system but it does provide an opportunity for like-minded women to connect,” said Bergeron. “The quarterly meeting is an hour but there is networking before that. The networking and energy in the room is amazing. We have 150 members at this point. It’s a win-win, giving back and connecting with others.”

As with Brace and Shumaker, Bergeron has found that women enjoy just getting together.

“There’s always great energy, but it’s also educational, and women love to learn,” said Bergeron. “And there’s a cause to this too – it’s for the greater good.”

The purpose of the Portland-based Women Standing Together is to “support and accelerate the advancement of women as entrepreneurs and leaders” and to help women “take their business from good to great.” Board member Michelle Neujahr, who is also chairwoman of the group’s marketing committee, said the group does that by providing an opportunity for women entrepreneurs to speak at regular luncheons hosted by Women Standing Together.

“We pick six or seven speakers every year who present their ideas and then receive feedback from the group and have mentors walk with them,” said Neujahr, who is a consultant and motivational speaker. “We stand around a woman who is trying to accomplish something. Our leadership lunches provide a way to support women who want to lead and take a more forward facing role. We come together and talk about creative ideas. Magic happens when we’re connected.”

A $250 annual membership provides access to leadership luncheons and other events, as well as the networking that takes place at each.

“It’s all about the connections we make. The ability to give of ourselves and share in someone else’s success and come together as a community in that deep connection,” said Neujanr. “And I find when you take the time to give and be supportive it always comes back to you.”

A member’s table at a Maine Women’s Network meeting. Members of the group provide their business cards and marketing material to event guests and fellow members.Photo by Iveta Holden, Bliss PhotographyMichelle Neujahr, a motivational speaker and a business coach, gave a presentation on how to be fearless at a meeting of the Midcoast Chapter of Maine Women’s Network at the Landings Restaurant in Rockland. Photo by Iveta Holden, Bliss PhotographyA monthly “Open Networking” event is hosted by the Portland Chapter of the Maine Women’s Network at the Top of the East at the Westin Hotel. The evening event offers professional women a chance to connect in a more casual setting. Photo courtesy of the Portland Chapter of Maine Women’s Network

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