Whether or not you agree with all of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s professional advice for women, there’s something to be said for building a network of peers, such as the “Lean In Circles” she recommends.
Starting a business networking group can give you access to mentors, key contacts, and partners in your community. A group that’s made up exclusively of women can tackle topics from the lack of gender diversity on corporate boards to the difficulties of balancing business ownership and parenthood. (Although the latter affects men as well as women, mothers typically spend twice as much time on child care as fathers do).
Here are a few strategies for creating an effective women’s entrepreneurial network, based on Sandberg’s “Lean In Circle” advice.
1. Find women to join your network. Reach out to friends and contacts across industries who have businesses of similar sizes and maturity levels. Avoid selecting your own employees or mentors; the idea is to build a network of women with similar roles and experience levels who are committed to meeting regularly to discuss business goals and experiences. LeanIn.org recommends choosing six to eight peers.
2. Create an agenda. Whether you plan to meet weekly, biweekly, or monthly, it’s important to set a theme for each meeting, such as recruiting staff, balancing work and family, or managing your company’s financials. Consider bringing in an expert speaker for a short presentation and Q&A session to fit each theme: For instance, an accountant may be willing to speak free of charge about preparing your records for tax time. (If you wish to follow the Lean In Circle curriculum, you can download all of the materials from the website.)
3. Find an online platform that meets your needs. It can be valuable to keep the conversation going after each meeting. Lean In Circles use Mightybell, a free web-based app for creating and managing closed discussion groups. Alternatively, you can set up a private (invitation-only) group on a social media network such as Facebook or LinkedIn.
4. Share your experiences openly. Although you may not want to disclose any confidential information about your business operations, you may find value in sharing and comparing your experiences with your peers. Discuss situations that you’re each likely to have encountered, such as being the only woman at a business meeting, and how you’ve viewed and coped with the situation.
5. Be transparent about your goals. As entrepreneurs, you’ll each likely also have certain goals in mind, such as making contact with a certain leader in your industry or gaining experience as a conference speaker. Don’t be afraid to share your business goals, and be proactive in asking other group members to help you achieve them.
If you commit to your group, you’re likely to see it make a difference, both personally and professionally. “What I love about our circle is that it’s empowering us to take action to get the results we want in our lives and careers,” says Vanessa Loder, founder and CEO of Akoya. “I hope that as women start supporting each other through Lean In, we’ll present more powerful, authentic versions of ourselves, and change the way the world sees us.”