SOUTHINGTON — The state Department of Economic and Community Development estimates that women-owned businesses now contribute approximately $16 billion to the state’s economy.
That positive growth represents a vast change over the landscape from even two decades ago. Long-gone are the days when vocations for women were largely limited to homemaking or the typing pool. Hearing from women who have made it through obstacles can be a source of inspiration.
That is the message of the Southington Chamber of Commerce’s Women’s Leadership Network.
Whether a woman owns a business, works in one, or has just started out in her career, the WLN is creating new ways for women to support other women. One way is through “Woman to Woman,” an ongoing event series open to all female Southington Chamber members.
The Chamber of Commerce is a non-political, non-partisan, “voice for our businesses,” explained the Southington Chamber’s Executive Director Barbara Hekeler.
“In order to be a member of the Women’s Leadership Network, you must work for a company that’s a chamber member, but all female employees are invited to participate in the Women’s Leadership Network,” she added.
Hekeler describes the WLN’s “Woman to Woman” initiative as an opportunity to enhance the Chamber’s mission of providing a better business climate for everyone.
“We think success is best achieved by helping one another,” she explains. “But the goal of the series is, we want to bring women together personally and professionally.”
For MaryAnn Stanley, chair of the Women’s Leadership Network, “the whole purpose of what we do is create a network between women and business.”
Stanley is a co-owner of Southington’s Asphalt #1 Paving Company, a real estate agent with Century 21, as well as a wife and a mother.
“We all face similar obstacles in what we have to do, whether it’s child care, or getting good employees, so we bounce ideas off each other, too. We have a great group, and the committee is very passionate about the work,” Stanley said.
The “Woman to Woman” series covers various “topics of interest,” even as it continues to evolve.
One session took place in what Hekeler called “a small intimate setting” where participants discussed serious subjects like abuse and assault with the author of a book on the topic. A recent September session explored “atomic habits” — the ideas in psychologist James Clear’s best-selling book about personal development. The next event, scheduled for Oct. 12, will touch on the topic of “the power of emotional awareness.”
Hekeler says the current plan is for the series to continue on a monthly basis, with a brief pause during the busy holiday season.
“There’s really no rules as to topics, as long as they do have something to do with creating a positive impact on women as a whole,” Hekeler said.
The need for such a network is clear to Hekeler and Stanley both.
“Specifically, you see a lot of new businesses are being started by women, and there has been an increase in openings,” Hekeler stated. She emphasizes, however, that while the “Woman to Woman” series has a specific focus, the Chamber of Commerce is open to everyone.
“While it’s great seeing the emergence of a support group among female professionals, nothing we do is to be at the expense of male counterparts,” Hekeler clarifies. “In fact, there are going to be workshops where our facilitators will be male professional colleagues. But sometimes you do need a group where people can come together and have more intimate discussions, and where you have participants who can understand other peoples’ situations.”
Funds from events like “Giving Tuesday” are used toward providing these workshops at no cost for members. For Hekeler, opportunities like these are only one small part of the benefits of Chamber membership.
“People are sometimes shocked by what the return on investment for being part of the Chamber of Commerce is,” she says, “and how much we provide.”
This applies to community events like the annual Apple Harvest Festival, but also basic “business intelligence” that Hekeler suggests is crucial for new business owners developing markets and marketing skills.
Hekeler insists that there’s no such thing as bad networking.
“Every single thing we do in this office is about relationship building,” she says, “and we encourage people to be part of as many networks as they can.”