Women build network to tackle business, social issues by Mary Fortune - Chattanooga Times Free Press

Monday, November 19, 2007 1:38 PM | Anonymous
Sitting with her mother and sister around a kitchen table last year, Tekelia Kelly had a revelation: The three women were trying to succeed professionally and trying to do it alone.

“It hit me how we were making our efforts independently, like operating on a island,” Mrs. Kelly said.

She went home and built a Web site to help women connect and support each other. Dubbing her fledgling idea “Sisters in Business,” Mrs. Kelly saw it grow to include more than 100 businesses and a roster of almost 30 corporate sponsors who have been members since the site's February 2006 debut.

“My Web developer told me, ‘You are growing like a snowball rolling down a hill,'” Mrs. Kelly said. “It has just really taken off.”

As women gained more power in the world of work, they learned to use advocacy and support networks to help themselves and their peers succeed. In recent years, they have helped launch efforts that aim to accomplish everything from sending underprivileged women to college to promoting each other's businesses and mentoring younger women.

“UNIQUE APPROACH”

Having a forum where everyone understands the challenges of being female in the work force makes for a special environment, said Julie Bestry, a member of the Chattanooga chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, which came together in 1990.

“Women have a unique approach to business,” said Ms. Bestry, the owner of Best Results Organizing.

“Men are not eager to talk about their failings or their challenges, but women I find are comfortable with opening up and saying, ‘These are the skills and talents I have; these other areas are my areas of weakness; can I seek your experience, your guidance,'” she said. “That's an amazing thing.”

The Chattanooga chapter of Executive Women International formed 20 years ago with a mission of advancing women's education, said chapter President Tanya English, a paralegal at the Miller & Martin law firm. The chapter has 64 member firms, she said, and it grew about 40 percent in its last fiscal year.

“There are so many more professional women out there today, and a lot of single professional women,” Ms. English said.

But in a male-dominated business world, women typically haven't been invited onto the golf course or to the ball game where many professional relationships are built, said Kristi Haulsee, vice president for member-investor services at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. These groups give women a way to build their own networks and feed their professional goals, she said.

“We are each other's best advocates,” she said.

Last year, the Chamber created three local awards to honor women in business and leadership. The Nautilus Awards were an outgrowth of the national Athena Award, which has been given in Chattanooga since 1997, Ms. Haulsee said.

The Nautilus Awards recognize three people: one who has worked in grass-roots efforts to improve the lives of women, a female entrepreneur and a high school junior or senior with strong science and math aptitude. Next year, the Nautilus Awards will include a fourth recipient undefined a woman who is over 25 who will receive money for college.

LIFTING EACH OTHER UP

The growth of recognition and support for women in work and education is a natural result of generations of women pushing their way into the workplace, Ms. Haulsee said.

In 1960, about 43 percent of women ages 25 to 54 were in the work force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2005, more than 75 percent of women in that age range were part of the labor force.

“Women before us did a whole lot,” Ms. Haulsee said. “These groups are really trying to help women understand that we need to help each other and lift each other up.”

Mrs. Kelly said she could have used such an organization when she was an engineering student, entering a “man's world” and struggling to find her way.

“I felt very vulnerable, especially when I started having children,” said Mrs. Kelly, the mother of three children who range in age from 21 to 12. “What has happened is that I've come through the ages, and I see this new paradigm of women saying, ‘My family is important; my career is important; I better look out for myself.'”

Carol Berz, the head of Private Dispute Resolution in Chattanooga and the chairwoman of the Tennessee Economic Council on Women, said there is still much to be done to make women successful in Tennessee, which ranks 49th nationally in women's political participation.

“It's important for women to network and get to know each other so that they can help each other gain financial and personal success,” she said.

Encouraging women to seek leadership roles is one of the missions of the Women's Leadership Institute, said Marj Flemming, managing director.

The local organization began 11 years ago as informal meetings of seven friends who got together every couple of weeks to talk about “the state of things for women in Tennessee, for women in Chattanooga, how much progress women had made and how much we needed to make,” she said.

“Finally we decided, ‘We can sit and talk about this forever, but we'd better do something about it,'” she said.

The group's annual leadership address has grown by 150 people a year, and this year's event featuring Gloria Steinem in January already has 510 people booked, Ms. Flemming said.

“We offer programs that hopefully introduce people to new ideas about their own development,” she said.
E-mail Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com

ON THE WEB

Sisters In Business: Sistersinbusiness.net
Women's Leadership Institute: www.cwli.org
National Association of Women Business Owners: www.chanawbo.org
Executive Women International: www.ewichattanooga.org
National Women's Business Council: www.nwbc.gov
Tennessee Economic Council on Women: state.tn.us/sos/ecw

By Mary Fortune Staff Writer

EWI of Chattanooga | P.O. Box 11522 | Chattanooga, TN  37401 | Contact
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software