Members of the Women Business Owners Alliance of Pioneer Valley say the organization has proven beneficial on many levels, offering inspiration and knowledge from other women’s experiences in a supportive and non-competitive atmosphere. There’s a comfort level in the WBOA many say they haven’t found elsewhere, and it’s helping them gain the confidence and connections to succeed at business and in life.
The organization’s tagline is “It’s Your Business; Don’t Grow it Alone,” and that axiom and related support made a significant difference to Amy Woolf of Amy Woolf Color Consulting in Northampton when she relocated to Western Mass. from Florida in 2009.
“I was a stay-at-home mom, and being in a business-oriented environment has helped me perceive myself as a professional,” she said, noting that many companies start at women’s kitchen tables, and connecting with a warm and welcoming group of professionals can help them establish a business persona.
Woolf was talking about the Women Business Owners Alliance of Pioneer Valley (WBOA), and stressed that there was nothing like it in the Sunshine State.
She went on to say the group has provided her with invaluable benefits that include support, inspiration, connections, and knowledge gleaned from other women’s experiences.
“When you work as a solo entrepreneur, you are often very isolated. But belonging to this group is like having several dozen mentors,” she explained. “You develop relationships over time: everyone has a different area of expertise, so you have people you can call when you need to figure out how to handle different situations.”
Dee Emery-Ferraro, the WBOA’s current president, agreed, and called the organization a real sisterhood.
Indeed, the group is different than many other business and professional organizations that focus almost entirely on networking and generating new business, she said.
To begin with, this group completely avoids the word ‘networking,’ and concentrates instead on providing a warm, supportive atmosphere that fosters what they refer to as ‘connections’ that allow and encourage women to share information about their business as well as their personal lives. As a result, most members get to know each other in a way that has little to do with their professional goals, although that certainly isn’t ignored.
“In addition to being business professionals, we are homemakers, wives, mothers, sisters, and aunts,” said Emery-Ferrero. “What we do professionally is only one facet of our lives.”
Beverly Astley agrees, and says the camaraderie in the group inspires women to help their peers succeed. She attended chamber of commerce meetings before she was introduced to WBOA, but found they didn’t offer what she was seeking.
However, WBOA filled that gap and has provided her with the type of support she had hoped to find in a group.
“Women think very differently than men; when you have conversations with members of WBOA, they want to get to know you as a person, not just find out about your business,” she said, adding that the group is very nurturing; women share photos of their family and talk about their children, grandchildren, home-improvement projects, and other issues affecting their lives.
Which is not to say they don’t discuss business. Indeed, those conversations definitely take place, and a combination of programs, sage advice, and even technical assistance has allowed many women to grow their companies and become successful.
Members interviewed by BusinessWest noted that competitiveness does not exist within the group, even between women who offer similar services or products.
“It’s a great first stop for anyone contemplating a business, but it’s not just for women starting out,” said Woolf. “Over the years, WBOA begins to feel like a family, and today my closest friends are women I met in the group.”
When she leaves a meeting, she noted, she always goes home with a kernel of wisdom or an actionable item — a great idea that is easy to implement. A conference can be overwhelming, but meetings allow women to make changes and “put wisdom to work” in a manageable, sustainable way, she told BusinessWest.
“The group has been very, very meaningful to me and very helpful. I don’t know that my business would be what it is today without WBOA,” she said.
Debra Sorcinelli concurred. “A lot of our members are sole entrepreneurs and want to do business on their own terms. But it brings you up a notch to be around other professionals,” said the serial entrepreneur, reiterating the fact that many women have families and other important priorities, and it doesn’t matter to members whether someone is working part-time or full-time.
For this issue and its focus on women in business, we look at the programs WBOA offers and how they have helped women grow as professionals and entrepreneurs.
Meetings of the Minds
WBOA has 110 members ranging from women employed by companies of all sizes, to solo entrepreneurs, small-business owners who employ others, and females who work only part-time. As long as a woman is working in any capacity, she is eligible to join the group.
Membership dues are $95 annually, although the first meeting is free. Meanwhile, those we spoke with said the group is open to adding males to their roster, although so far none have expressed interest in the nonprofit, founded in 1982 by Renate Oliver.
Its initial purpose was to provide women with business referrals, but today it has evolved into what its members call a true sisterhood. Connections are made formally and informally, and many members use services and products offered by their peers.
The group’s main fund-raiser is its annual Women’s Night of Comedy, which features three professional female comedians. The event typically raises $5,000 to $10,000, and the majority of the profits are donated to charities that change from year to year. The next comedy event will be staged March 23 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke, and chosen charities include the SMART Girls program at the Westfield Boys and Girls Club and Safe Passage, a nonprofit dedicated to helping survivors of domestic violence and relationship abuse.
WBOA also holds monthly breakfast events on the third Thursday of the month at the Summit View Restaurant in Holyoke featuring guest speakers, as well as After-5 gatherings scheduled bimonthly on the first Tuesday of the month at the Delaney House.
Guests are invited to most events, and great care is taken to ensure they feel welcome and comfortable. A greeter is stationed at the door, and potential members are given the option of being assigned an ambassador who sits with them, answers questions, and follows up with a call to make sure they felt comfortable and welcomed.
During events, WBOA members participate in power connections, a program that gives them a 15-second opportunity to speak about their business. Shout-outs are also held, during which members praise a service or product from a peer that has helped them.
In addition, every June the organization has a Woman of the Year Celebration in which a member chosen by a committee is recognized for her contributions to WBOA as well as her community.
Over the past 18 months, the WBOA has started two new initiatives. The first is a mentor-mentee collaboration with Springfield Technical College Community created with help from STCC Associate Business Professor Diane Sabato and WBOA chairperson Lori Fortuna.
Business students from STCC are matched with members twice a year and take part in a six-week program that includes guest speakers, seminars, and information on topics ranging from self-esteem to job interviews. At the final meeting, mentees are given outfits donated by WBOA member Linda Ligsukis, who owns Designer Consigner in Southwick. Seventeen graduates were recently honored at a monthly breakfast meeting and received a certificate of achievement, gift bag, and flowers donated by member Jackie Griswold.
The second new program focuses on education and was coordinated by Debra Sorcinelli and Anita Eliason, co-chairs of the education committee. They launched the program with classes on how to use Facebook and social media to promote a business, and additional programs are being planned for the coming year.
Sorcinelli went into business in 1982 under the moniker It’s A Girl’s Thing. The Agawam entrepreneur began selling handcrafted silver jewelry, then switched to fashion jewelry, before she joined WBOA four years ago.
The timing was perfect; her jewelry business was successful, but she wanted to make a change and needed inspiration, which she found in the group.
“I have gone to other groups that are all about networking, where everyone wants to sell you something; but WBOA isn’t like that,” she said.
Sorcinelli became a member of the board of directors soon after she joined, and last year she closed her jewelry business and launched a new venture called Social Sorc. Today, she specializes in teaching individuals and small-business owners how to use Facebook and social media, and although WBOA has not added to her customer base, it has put her in touch with women who have business skills she wanted to learn.
“I have heard wonderful stories that were really inspiring, and the group allowed me to meet women who were more than willing to share their business secrets and contacts,” she noted. “We have all grown together.”
Sorcinelli also initiated change, and with help from co-chairs Kim Chagnon and Eileen Jerome, the After-5 events were born.
She told Business West that members have opportunities to speak about their businesses at these gatherings, which is ideal, as many have not done this in public, and the group is always supportive.
Sorcinelli has continued to be active in WBOA, and in 2015 she was feted with its Spirit Award at the annual Business Woman of the Year Celebration, in part for her work in helping women build connections with each other.
She says the old axiom that states “the people you surround yourself with determine your success” has been proven true with this group. Other women have supported her, and she has shared her own knowledge, which has included collaborating with members who wanted to use social media to promote their events.
Woolf told BusinessWest she was intimidated by social media before she joined WBOA, especially since it was a new marketing platform when she first heard about it. But after a member shared her own experiences with LinkedIn, Woolf gained the confidence to go home and set up a profile on the site.
“I have received a lot of free advice,” she said.
But she has also given back during annual roundtable events in which members give 10-minute presentations in their field of expertise.
Astley has also found WBOA highly beneficial. The sole proprietor does voiceovers via her business, Beverly Ann’s Voice, spends many hours alone in her studio, and finds the meetings inspirational both personally and professionally.
“You feel comfortable talking about personal things while you discuss your business in this group,” Astley said. “WBOA hasn’t enhanced my business directly, but it has given me a lot more confidence.”
Astley says every female entrepreneur should attend at least one WBOA meeting. “It’s a really good place to land,” she said.
Woolf agrees and says membership has provided her with priceless benefits.
“It’s an extraordinary organization, and my business has gone gangbusters. I am experiencing steady growth and wrapping up the best year I ever had, and WBOA has been a big part of that,” she said.
That’s a testimonial — one you hear often — that speaks highly of this group that caters to female professionals and provides them with a level of comfort they have not been able to find anywhere else.