Do Women-Only Networking Groups Help or Hurt Female Entrepreneurs?
This new breed of groups offer a lot to Instagram. But will they change the equation for women entrepreneurs?
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
In a small loft space in downtown New York City, 13 women sit cross-legged on cushions. A noise machine hums in the background. Small succulents and crystals line the room, along with overstuffed purses carrying laptops. At the center is Deborah Hanekamp--or Mama Medicine, as she is known--a healer-slash-entrepreneur in a muumuu who is guiding the women in her studio through an after-work meditation.
The space is calming, except for the occasional sound of women arriving a bit late, finishing up business calls on cell phones. As those in the group introduce themselves, we learn there is a gastroenterologist with a skin care line, a founder of an educational center for kids, a CEO of a wellness concierge service, and a number of others with impressive titles. What these women have in common--other than the fact that they are moms--is that they're also entrepreneurs.
"For me, it's all interconnected. I'm workin' and mommin', I'm mommin' and workin'," says Hanekamp, who is seated facing the group. "But sometimes I need to pause and call the elements in."
There are a few smirks at the mention of "elements"--this is New York, not Los Angeles, after all--but for the most part, the women take it in stride. They're here by choice: part of a group called Heymama, a network for entrepreneurial-minded women who are also mothers, and are navigating the balance between the two.
Heymama began by accident, after Katya Libin and her co-founder, Amri Kibbler, met at a playdate for their 3-month-olds. Neither was particularly excited about returning to the rigid schedule of her corporate job--sales for one, fashion for the other--and the two immediately bonded over their struggle to find a community of working moms like them. They started an Instagram account to share photos of women they admired, along with photos of their children, and eventually that grew into a business: a paid membership network that counts fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff, and the founders of Gilt and Drybar, among its clientele. For $350 a year, moms get access to events, perks from other members (think: lawyers and accountants), and, most important, one another.
"For a lot of us, it's like, 'I have a babysitter for one night--I need to get my meditation, my community, and my networking in one,' " says Kibbler.
Ask any entrepreneur, and most will agree: Having a network is vital to professional success. "It's the number one unwritten rule," says Sallie Krawcheck, a former Wall Street executive who is the co-founder and CEO of Ellevest, a digital financial adviser for women, and chair of an affiliated networking group called Ellevate. And yet "networking" has long been a loaded term for women. Women are twice as likely as men to report feeling excluded from the networking process, as Catalyst and other researchers have found.
"We've all had that moment where your kid is screaming and you're hiding in the closet to take a conference call. As a working mom, you need your tribe. This is that tribe."Katya Libin, Heymama co-founder
Much of it comes down to gender. As recently as 2016, a study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that senior-level women who try to help other women at work are likely to face more negative performance reviews than those who don't (the same outcome resulted among nonwhite executives and employees, too). According to research by the economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, men are 46 percent more likely to have professional sponsors--people who champion them at work. This is suggested, in part, because men, who still have the majority of senior roles, are often hesitant to network with women, worried that mentorship will be mistaken for a come-on. When women do have the chance to network, they are sometimes reluctant to do it, even with other women, viewing the process as inauthentic and transactional, as research from the Harvard Business Review has found.
Dee Poku Spalding, a former Paramount Pictures executive who started Women Inspiration & Enterprise, a 50,000-member community for female entrepreneurs.
"Whenever I use the word 'networking,' women sort of run a mile," says Dee Poku Spalding, a former marketing VP at Paramount Pictures who now runs a community for female entrepreneurs called Women Inspiration & Enterprise. "And yet as someone who has spent a lot of time navigating the system, I can't stress how important it is to build these networks. It's what men do."
A new wave of women's networking may not sound like a particularly modern phenomenon in 2017--an age of Fearless Girl statues and Fempowerment marketing. But for years, to be a successful woman in a male-dominated space meant doing the precise opposite: downplaying one's gender. As the thinking went, if women were considered less equipped for these jobs, then those looking to rise up would do so by differentiation, sending the message: I'm not like those other women.
That attitude finally seems to be shifting. As Krawcheck explains it, there is now a sense--at least among a newer breed of entrepreneur--that gathering in packs may help, not hinder, female entrepreneurs. "For a long time, I think we accepted the status quo that there is one seat at the table for a woman, and if someone else has it, you can't," Krawcheck explains. "But there seems to be a newer recognition, particularly among young women and women in the startup world, that the table can grow. More than one female business can be funded, and, in fact, if you're an entrepreneur, it's good for you."
This new breed of women's network is often masked by the more palatable term "community": part cheerleading, part career coaching, part social club--all female. Round the corner in any major city these days, and you're likely to find one of these groups, along with promises of professional support (or, at the very least, a "tribe" of one's own).
There is the Wing, the co-working-space-meets-social-club co-founded by former PR strategist Audrey Gelman--a sunny, New York City loft full of lush couches and color-coordinated bookshelves where members can work, network, get a professional blowout, and attend events that range from conversations on fertility to panels on the black female experience. It is barely a year old and has a waiting list of 8,000 women.
And the Riveter, a kind of business-minded counterpart to the Wing--an 11,000-square-foot workspace and community in Seattle that launched in May, targeted to female entrepreneurs and professionals who crave more than "ping pong and beer taps" in a community space, says co-founder Amy Nelson. With just over 300 members, the Riveter hosts free business classes such as "Leveraging your LinkedIn" and "Fundraising 101," as well as yoga and meditation.
There is Spalding's WIE, a membership network that hosts small monthly salons and master classes on topics like negotiation and financial literacy, as well as an annual women-only TED-esque festival.
And there's Krawcheck's Ellevate Network, an 80,000-woman behemoth with chapters in 40 cities, targeted at businesswomen and entrepreneurs committed to "elevating each other" through education, conferences, and online "jam sessions" with experts on topics like "purposeful networking."
Others include theLi.st, a 500-woman email listserv and "visibility platform" for women in media and tech, founded by two journalist-entrepreneurs; Create & Cultivate, a conference series for women "looking to create and cultivate the career of their dreams"; Sally, a gathering of "women leaders, influencers, and tastemakers" that calls itself "a girl gang for the 21st century"; SheWorx, a "global collective" of entrepreneurs; and Girlboss Media, from author and Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso, a lifestyle website and event series "for women redefining success on their own terms" that just raised $1.2 million. There are dozens more.
"It's the formation of a new girls' club," says Morra Aarons-Mele, a marketing consultant who helps brands reach women. Some might call it the ripple effect of what's happening culturally. According to the National Women's Business Council, 89 percent of women who own companies are solo entrepreneurs. You can't turn on the television these days without hearing another grim story of sexism in Silicon Valley or the vast disparity in its funding: Sure, women may now start companies at five times the rate of the national average, but female-founded companies receive just 2.7 percent of all venture capital funding--and less if the founders are women of color.
When Gelman and her co-founder Lauren Kassan first conceived of the Wing, the idea was to create a place for women to stop off between meetings or take a break to charge their phones. But it wasn't long before the two found themselves carting members to Washington, D.C., on chartered buses for the Women's March after the election of Donald Trump. Nelson, of the Riveter, had been thinking about a women-friendly co-working space for a while; the election finally pushed her to leave her day job as a corporate litigator.
"I think what is unique to this moment is that women are galvanized," Nelson explains. "What we're doing is taking that feeling and creating a physical space where women can come together and pursue their careers, but do it within a network. The 'old boys' club' has existed and worked for hundreds of years. We're creating a female equivalent."
The idea of women gathering without men is nothing new. It was a women's gathering that led to the first American women's rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848; meetings of small groups of women--known as "consciousness-raising"--led to the women's movement of the 1970s. As Alexis Coe, the Wing's historian-in-residence (yes, that's a thing), explains it, women's social clubs have existed since the 1800s, with one of the first started by a group of female journalists who were denied entry into the New York Press Club to hear Charles Dickens speak in 1868. But it was rare that women had careers back then, and so the focus of those early clubs was largely on social reform--the creation of parks and libraries and other public services.
This new iteration of club is decidedly business-focused: to make profitable operations of both the companies of the women who join them and the networks powering them. Much like joining a gym, women can pay around $375 a month to work out of the Riveter, or $215 to be part of the Wing. Heymama's "exclusive, curated network" makes money by charging that annual membership, along with "influencer" brand sponsorships and ticket sales from events. Since Krawcheck purchased women's membership group 85 Broads in 2013 and rebranded it the Ellevate Network--charging as much as $1,200 a year for a membership--revenue has grown in the "strong double digits." In five years, Spalding's WIE has grown from a 400-person one-off event to a network of 50,000 women, without any outside capital.
Heymama, a network for entrepreneur-moms whose members include the founders of Gilt and Drybar. For 0 a year, members get access to, among many other things, events like the one shown here, which took place last spring at fellow member Rebecca Minkoff's Manhattan store.
"What we're seeing with regard to women's networks is similar to what we saw in the early days of beauty and fashion--a potentially billion-dollar industry that is only just beginning to take off," says Whitney Wolfe, the founder and CEO of Bumble, the female-centric dating app that recently unveiled its own business networking offshoot, BumbleBizz--and an early investor in the Wing. "These groups can and should be taken seriously, for what they bring to women both in terms of confidence and support, and in what they offer to profitable, scalable businesses with women leading them."
While it's still early days, investors already see an opportunity to cash in. The Riveter recently raised $1.1 million to open more locations, and plans to go national. Meanwhile, the Wing, with its laundry list of high-profile members, Instagram-friendly branding, and plans to scale, has attracted $8 million in Series A funding from a roster that includes Kleiner Perkins and venture capital firm NEA. Says SoulCycle co-founder Elizabeth Cutler, who, along with business partner Julie Rice, has also invested in it: "When Julie and I started SoulCycle, there was almost no boutique fitness industry, so we actually created the market. And I think what the Wing is doing is really similar, where the demand is way outpacing the supply."
The women's events business now accounts for a healthy portion of the estimated $14 billion conference and trade show industry, according to IbisWorld. It doesn't take a great leap to imagine this new crop of female empowerment business grabbing a sizable chunk of it. That's great for the entrepreneurs behind these outfits--but for female entrepreneurs at large, will congregating in Millennial-pink versions of WeWork actually help propel them past those dismal funding statistics?
Both the members and the founders of these outfits seem to think so. Money--which, Krawcheck notes, men still have more of--helps fuel long-lasting businesses. Presumably, the more such businesses created by female founders, the more women there will be willing to help other women get their businesses off the ground. It's that kind of money flow that women have been left out of for years.
Kathryn Minshew, the 31-year-old co-founder of the Muse, a Millennial career platform, points to her experience with theLi.st, the all-female email listserv started by journalists Rachel Sklar and Glynnis MacNicol five years ago. "Three of our seed investors were women I met through theLi.st," says Minshew, who raised $16 million in Series B funding for the Muse last year. TheLi.st may be among the less formally constructed of these types of networks. But it's been around much longer than most, and provides a window into what can transpire when female entrepreneurs are meditating together in a candlelit circle--or simply connecting through a bare-bones email list.
"The first time I appeared on television representing my company, it was because of theLi.st," Minshew continues. "I met another executive I admired through theLi.st. She became an adviser and, three years later, is now an executive at my company."