Linda Hollander

(WOMENSENEWS)–Women are starting new businesses at twice the rate of men, and in doing so, are looking for creative ways to handle the challenges that come with simultaneously managing a career and family.

In this pursuit, networking, an old skill they have been putting to work in various forms throughout the ages, is coming in particularly handy.

“Women are natural networkers,” said LindaHollander, author of “Bags to Riches: 7 Success Secrets for Women in Business.” Hollander encourages women to form groups, or “success teams,” to channel this networking power.

These groups are providing women with the camaraderie, exchange of ideas and know-how that men have been finding on the golf course for years.

Hollander has been advocating the usefulness of this brand of brainstorming since 1988, when she began her own business, The Bag Ladies, with her best friend from grade school. Located in Los Angeles, the two produce promotional bags. Hollander and her friend, Sheryl Felice, brought different work styles to the table.

“I was the crazy-artist-right-brain and came up with all the wacky ideas,” said Hollander. “Sheryl was more grounded and is the numbers person.” In a sense, she said, they were in the trenches together. When one got knocked down, the other picked her up. It was at this time, Hollander realized the benefit of teamwork and began urging other small business owners to get together to talk about their challenges and offer one another ideas and support.

She now belongs to several of these success teams. “There are days when you ask yourself what you are doing this for and if you are nuts,” said Hollander. “Your team is there to assure you that you are not.”

The germ of these success teams dates to a “mastermind alliance,” first described by motivational author Napoleon Hill in his 1937 book, “Think and Grow Rich.” While it is an old concept, it has really been in the past five years that women’s use of success groups has taken off.

Women Own More Businesses Than Ever Before

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Women’s Business Research, the number of privately held business that were at least 50 percent women-owned grew 11 percent between 1997 and 2000. That’s 1.5 times the rate of privately held companies in general.

Women’s growing participation in entrepreneurial activities is fueling interest in the networking groups, said Sharon Whiteley, an entrepreneur, an “angel investor” who provides capital for startups and one of the authors of the newly released book, “The Old Girls’ Network: Insider Advice for Women Building Businesses in a Man’s World.”

“Women started to get organized because of the new opportunities available to them,” said Whiteley. “Community building and networking is in our DNA, but historically we have not honed this for business.”

Women are turning to these groups, actively seeking bases of personal and professional support to tackle the challenges of starting and running a business. Many also look for advice about how to combine all that with running a family as well.

In response, institutes and personal coaches are setting up these groups, and women are organizing on their own. Many of them are informal, allowing members to concentrate on specific issues. They are a more personalized approach to problem-solving than some of the larger women’s organizations, like the National Association for Female Executives in New York City, which has drawn 125,000 members since it was founded in 1972.

Especially for the entrepreneur, the groups offset isolation and provide a common forum for addressing myriad business problems. In them, women define their goals and set up a roadmap to achieve them.

Donna Gerhauser, a New Jersey-based “success” coach and president of the New Jersey Professional Coaches Association, found the Hill’s book largely geared toward men, but applied the principles he espoused to women in business. She began one of the more informal success groups with a business owner in her town. They have limited the size, finding women can more precisely address their concerns in a small group of five or six members.

“The principle,” Gerhauser said, “is that as business owners, we don’t necessarily have all the answers or all the expertise that we need to become more successful. So we invite people into the group who have something to offer in terms of their expertise and experiences.”

Starting With a Purpose Statement

Most of the women agree on the requirements for setting up a team. There must be a purpose statement. Hollander, who also bases her success groups on Hill’s writings, says her group’s purpose statement is always based around a similar give-and-take philosophy.

“Basically we try to set down a plan, so we can do one thing each day to get closer to our goals,” said Hollander. One of the main concerns of women in Hollander’s groups is sales and marketing. “We help each other design marketing pieces for customers. Business growth is the number one concern on the top of the minds of many entrepreneurs.”

In her New Jersey-based group, Gerhauser tries to invite women into the group who have a mix of backgrounds. It is when there is a diversity of expertise, or when, for instance, the group includes a software programmer and an accountant, they flourish, she said.

‘Life Balance’ Part of the Mix

Benefits extend beyond business problems. Women are quick to bring family and personal issues into the meetings as well. Discussing life balance has been particularly important in Gerhauser’s group–three of the four members have school-age children.

“Women’s networking is all about inclusion,” said Kelly O’Neil, who works in marketing and public relations in San Jose as well as serving as an executive coach. Her newest business, Journey Avenue, opens on Nov. 5 and will offer nationwide coaching and consulting programs for business owners and their teams. O’Neil is a member of 10 networking groups. These groups, she said, offer education that specifically pertains to women running a business. O’Neil is also a big believer in the value these groups bring to life balance.

“Networking groups are becoming more essential to business because people are spread so thin. For me, networking groups are imperative. Solid business relationships are built on them. They are an essential way to stay connected.”

“We want to help each other move further toward success,” said O’Neil, and sometimes that means sharing advice about a gardener, sore throat remedy or child care provider.

Marianne Sullivan is a New York-based freelance writer who writes frequently on economics and finance.

For more information:

Center for Women’s Business Research:

Wealthy Bag Lady–Small Business Success for Women:

Journey Avenue: