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Why Women's Business Networks Pay Off

I used to perceive women's networks as places to endlessly complain about work, spouses or children, and frankly I preferred to eat at my desk. Yet there is a palpable change taking place in how these networks are regarded, both by women and the world at large.
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I'm often asked: Should I join a women's network?

I used to perceive women's networks as places to endlessly complain about work, spouses or children, and frankly I preferred to eat at my desk. From my current perspective, I now know that I missed out on lucrative opportunities.

I wasn't alone in dismissing women's networks as coffee-klatches with intangible benefits that remained hard to calculate. A 2011 study of women's networks inside organizations showed that while members found the network personally beneficial and believed it added value to the firm, the company's leadership didn't see the value to their bottom line.

Yet there is a palpable change taking place in how these networks are regarded, both by women and the world at large. The perception is shifting from that of a knitting circle to a power circle where women go to boost their career prospects. Finally, these women's clubs appear to be attracting the new power brokers, and not just the complainers.

There is no better example in this shift in thinking than the news last month that Sallie Krawcheck, once called "the most powerful woman on Wall Street," bought 85 Broads, a global women's organization that boasts 30,000 members, for an undisclosed sum. This from a woman once seen as a contender to run the SEC who proclaimed that she spent most of her career avoiding the topic of being a woman in business. Her announcement on LinkedIn demonstrates that altruism played no role in this decision. It is clearly part of a more lucrative plan as she now calls investing in women "smart business."

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, has turned the concept of women's networking into a fully-fledged grassroots revolution, inspiring women around the globe to form "Lean In" circles. According to a recent report, the movement boasts 200,000 members.

The rise of informal, women's networking groups caught the attention of New York-based journalist Pamela Ryckman three years ago, while attending a women's conference in California.

"The women there were incredibly warm," recalled Ms. Ryckman, who recently published Stiletto Network: Inside the Women's Power Circles that are Changing the Face of Business. "They were talking about transactions but they were also talking about heir home lives and others interests," she observed.

Through these events, women counseled each other through divorces, sick children, and workplace obstacles. The support being offered behind closed doors was a much different story than the one portrayed of women in the workforce as unsupportive of each other.

"The most surprising thing is that the world has one view of women in the workforce but there is an entirely different story. It's just happening behind closed doors... (This) is a love story disguised as a business story," she added.

Ms. Ryckman attributes this change in women's networks to the evolution of women in business. "Women have been getting together to talk since time immemorial but they haven't had the accumulated wealth to do much for each other. Now they do," she observed.

In addition to wealth, women increasingly fill more senior roles in business and are reaching the critical mass needed to effectively network with each other and to reach out to younger women.

Marie-Josée Gagnon, president and founder, CASACOM, a public relations and communications firm, cites her involvement in the Women's Presidents Organizations as critical to her success.

"The success of a person's career substantially depends on the strength of her network," asserted Ms. Gagnon. "After expertise and hard work, the ability to build relationships is the third prerequisite for professional success and the higher you move up, the more crucial it becomes."

Creating and maintaining robust networks clearly pays off in direct gains.

Catharine Devlin, a member at Verity, a private club for professional women in Toronto and president of Devlin e-Business Architects said that her membership has "paid for itself many times over." It's a sentiment that Verity founder Mary Aitken often hears.

On rare occasions, networks can produce tremendous business results.

Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, co-founder of the Gilt Groupe, admitted that when the flash sales site launched in 2007, her role was to convince brands of her vision, something that could not have been possible without the power of networks.

"The way we built our membership was completely based on our network. It was Halloween 2007 and we gave ourselves 13 days to get as many people to sign up as possible and we reached out to every person we ever contacted. We signed up 13,000 people," said Ms. Wilson.

Those sign-ups came directly from emails to contacts the founders made over the years. She admits the number they reached out to far exceed those who registered. The company's valuation now ranges from $600 million to $1.1 billion according to reports.

That should make most people reconsider eating at their desk.