By Pam George
Special to Delaware Business Times
When injuries from a car accident forced Kari Ainsworth to close her massage practice, she re-evaluated her career options - and her networking groups. The Millsboro resident had been a member of a local Business Networking International Network chapter, a coed group. However, as she transitioned into being an integrative nutrition health coach and cosmetologist, she wanted a different experience.
"I wanted to connect with women on a different level," she said. "I want to build relationships. I want to support people. I want to get excited when someone's child graduates or gets married. I want to build a tribe, so to speak."
She learned about Polka Dot Powerhouse, which brands itself as a national "connection company" that fosters friendships as well as business links. Ainsworth attended a meeting of the Wilmington chapter, which gathers at Brio Tuscan Grille. Late last summer, she started a Lewes chapter, which has about 30 members, including retirees, and meets at The Clubhouse at Baywood.
Polka Dot Powerhouse in many respects represents the 21st-century version of women's networking groups, and it's a long way from 1980 when Wilmington Women in Business was founded.
In the 1980s and 1990s, WWB members in power suits gathered in the Gold Ballroom of the Hotel du Pont to discuss timely topics such as the glass ceiling. Many worked in the then-thriving financial services industry or large corporations. However, attendance plummeted in the early 2000s, and the organization folded about a year ago.
The organization's demise could indicate that there's not as much need for women-only business groups, said WWB past president Judy Czyzewski, client relationship manager for Chatham Financial in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Women now want to network with both men and women.
Or, it represents a change in how women want to connect. Online groups can plug the niche for busy professionals, noted Donna Duffy, past president of the Delaware chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners and CEO of Sage Success Studio, which works with midlife female entrepreneurs and leaders.
"Social media is based on affinity," Duffy said. "If my target is midlife women, I can easily get that cross-section right there by doing a search."
As the Polka Dot Powerhouse illustrates, some women also want more from the investment of their time and money. "I want more depth," Duffy agreed.
Carol Arnott-Robbins knows something about that. As a financial planner, she founded NEWS4Women (the Network to Encourage Women's Support 4 Women), which hosts a speaker/conversation series that addresses timely topics and events such as Wine4Women, gatherings at a local business to benefit a local charity.
"If we can drink wine, network and support a cause at the same time - bonus," said Czyzewski of groups with an active social element.
Arnott-Robbins, now a Realtor with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach, said her organization does not compete for members. In fact, there is no membership fee.
"We are truly collaborative," she said. "We post a lot of different group's activities on our website, sometimes nonprofit, sometimes in the arts and sometimes chamber events."
There is clearly still a place for membership organizations that specifically target women in business. Witness the continued success of NAWBO, which serves owners. The local chapter was founded in 2000.
If you're interested in joining a group, here are a few to consider.
Chicks for Charity
Kari Ainsworth founded this coastal Sussex County organization in July 2010 with friend Marcie Urgo.
The group meets monthly to raise money for charities. Business connections occur over the buffet table.
Salons, workshops, peer mentoring groups and a pitch contest for female entrepreneurs are just a few of the
activities. Most of the events are open to anyone, but there is a membership circle with benefits such as meetups, discounts and circle-only events. Greatdames.com
Forum of Executive Women Delaware
Founded in 1992, the local forum is a peer-to-peer membership organization for women leaders. Membership requirements include 10 years of professional experience and five years of progressive leadership experience. Fewde.org