Networking is a powerful tool for women business owners seeking connection and camaraderie among their peers. Whether they’re interested in professional growth or sharing common challenges with other women, these groups play a vital role in filling the need.
“Men do this in a different way,” said Beth Caldwell, founder and executive director of Pittsburgh Professional Women. “They do this on the golf course. They don’t have to plan or schedule a time to mentor other men. They just do it.”
Women, on the other hand, often feel the need to schedule professional development and mentorship opportunities around their busy schedules. “Women are doing so many things that if we want to get a sense of community connection, we have to schedule it if we want it to happen,” said Caldwell.
That longing for bonding with her peers is what led Caldwell to launch Pittsburgh Professional Women in 2004.
The group is far from a traditional networking organization. Women don’t come to events, exchange business cards and cold pitch other women. “I didn’t want an audience to sell to,” said Caldwell. “I was lonely as a single mother and business owner and was looking for connection and collaboration. I was interested in how to grow as a business and talk with other successful women doing the same.”
Her first meeting for Pittsburgh Professional Women included eight members sharing stories and getting to know one another at a local Panera. “We started out as a Yahoo group because I didn’t have a website back then,” she said. “By the second meeting, we had 36 members, and from there we grew to 86 and then 100.”
Today, the group boasts 289 members across Western Pennsylvania, as well as a LinkedIn group with over 12,000 Pittsburgh area participants.
Members pay a $99 annual fee, which gives them free access to online events and discounted rates for in-person workshops and other events. Nonmembers can attend programming but must pay a fee, Caldwell said.
One of the biggest benefits of joining is the Meet the Members profile page on the group’s website. “Many members see this as an online ad,” said Caldwell. “That web page receives more than 8,000 visits each month, over 2,000 more than the events page.”
Pittsburgh Professional Women isn’t the only regional networking group for women professionals. Once monthly, the Pittsburgh North Regional Chamber hosts the Women’s Leadership Roundtable.
During the roundtable sessions, roundtable organizers address challenges that affect women professionals. “We do it without male bashing,” said Dr. Ann Gatty, who originally suggested the sessions to the chamber president back in 2019. “We try to boost each other up. It’s a very conversational meeting with a mixed group of professionals. It’s a good organization for sharing ideas and solutions.”
The idea came from Gatty’s research project that explored whether women professionals were still chasing the superwoman myth. “Women are trying to be superwomen who hold down jobs, take care of their homes and families and still have time to volunteer in community activities,” said Gatty.
Feeling pressure to do it all and learning how to overcome it is the focus of the roundtable. Like Pittsburgh Professional Women, the organization isn’t a traditional networking group. It’s more of a support network for professional women.
In addition to their monthly roundtable sessions, Gatty said the group also hosts a quarterly after-hours, in-person meeting with a guest speaker and the opportunity to network the old-fashioned way. November’s session features the topic of how to protect yourself against fraud and identity theft—a common concern among women entrepreneurs and business owners.
Some of the other topics include building strategies to incorporate mentoring into your professional development, having a seat at the table and supporting your passion.
“Mentoring really helps women,” said Dr. Gatty. “We really try to encourage that. A lot of times, women aren’t feeling heard, even if they’re in the C-suite. We talk about the importance of allyship.”
Another local women’s networking group taking a different approach to supporting women professionals is The Salon.
The organization officially launched on International Women’s Day in 2020.
“It wasn’t the best time for a launch, since we all went into Covid lockdown a week later,” said founder Cathy Lewis Long. “We launched as an intended in-real-life community living room space to come together for women with shared interests.”
Covid forced The Salon to reimagine its offerings from in-person at coworking space Field Day in Lawrenceville to a virtual platform to ride out the pandemic. “While we’re three years old, we’re very much still a young organization because of that setback.”
The Salon doesn’t embrace networking in the traditional sense, nor does it focus on professional development or hardcore skill development.
“There’s many organizations that do incredible networking work,” said Lewis Long. “For us, it’s around trying to meet the needs of women around Pittsburgh who are seeking more connection and more depth and growth within themselves and others.”
Each quarter, The Salon organizes a themed event. In Q1 of this year, they embraced a “Women Be Well” theme. Q2 focused on “Lifestyle and Vocational Discernment” and the third quarter was more about having fun. During the final quarter of this year, they plan to highlight the “Season of Service.”
“Inside of these activities are certainly opportunities to make connections and network organically,” said Lewis Long. “It’s just not our primary focus. We look at networking by helping women to be relational rather than transactional with other women.”
The group currently has around 150 members. Memberships are month-to-month. Members get reduced fees to any events or workshops, but membership isn’t required to be a part of the community, Lewis Long said.
Some of the events are women-only, while others allow men to participate.
“We’re always up to something interesting and fun,” said Lewis Long. “Not every activity is for every person, but it’s a place to meet new people and try something different.”