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SSO’s New Executive Director Works in Concert with the Community

Audrey Szychulski

Audrey Szychulski decided long ago that she was better suited to managing an orchestra than playing in one.

Audrey Szychulski says she’s very competitive — especially, it seems, when it comes to raising money and setting and surpassing goals.
It’s a pattern that was in evidence while she was a Girl Scout growing up in Northeast Philadelphia. The neighborhoods in that area were densely settled, with hundreds of homes situated extremely close to one another, a situation she took full advantage of as she would personally account for sales of 400 to 500 boxes of cookies during those annual spring drives, easily tops in her troop.
And that pattern has continued during a career in music administration launched after Szychulski concluded that she was more suited to managing orchestras than playing in one — although, for some time, the latter was her professional ambition.
By the time she was 16, she had toured more than 20 countries as a young cellist in an ensemble, which had her seriously, but also realistically, considering her future in classical music.
“It seemed like a really fantastic life; therefore, I thought I wanted to be a performing musician when I grew up,” she said, pausing to add a ‘but’ as she searched for the right words to explain why she didn’t pursue that exact route for a career.
“Well, I’m only an OK player,” she admitted, adding that this assessment changed her specific focus, but not her desire to be involved with music professionally, a passion that has taken her to Springfield and the position of executive director of the city’s symphony orchestra.
A math whiz in high school, her education led to private teaching of cello, string specialties, and arts administration, before landing managerial positions with three orchestras, most recently the Erie Philharmonic in Erie, Pa.
Szychulski found similar challenges at all those organizations — especially the task of making the public aware of their area symphony and building an audience base — but eventually discovered that effective collaboration with businesses and other arts-related institutions is the key to establishing, and enhancing, an orchestra’s presence in a given community.
And that’s one of many lessons she’ll work to apply with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (SSO), where she will succeed Michael Jonnes, who retired last December after leading the orchestra for 15 years.
Another of these lessons is that she is happiest — and an orchestra is most successful — when the administrative director and the conductor are on the same page and working, well, in concert with one another, and she expects such a relationship in her latest career challenge.
“It is a unique situation where you have an organization that has two staff leadership positions,” she explained. “The conductor is the head of everything artistic, and my job is to run the marketing, audience development, and organize the staff members to see that all of the things that are needed to get to a performance are wonderful.”
Szychulski’s extensive and serious musical background impressed Kevin Rhodes, the SSO conductor since 2001, who called her “the whole package.”
“She’s so enthusiastic and has new ways of looking at what we do; she doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel here, but we’re always eager to try new things,” said Rhodes. “We’re celebrating our 70th year, and I think that speaks to the orchestra’s ability and desire to continually be adapting, changing, and being flexible. I think we’re going to have a great time.”
For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Szychulski about her goals for the future of the SSO and her new partnership with Rhodes in an ongoing effort to create a vision for the orchestra and make it reality.

Achievements of Note
Szychulski graduated from Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, earning a degree in music education, and was essentially self-employed coming out of college. She grew her venture to nearly 70 private music students per week before eventually accepting a teaching position at Elmira College in New York, which she kept for five years.
A friend recommended her for a part-time position as manager of education and operations for the Orchestra of the Southern Finger Lakes (OSFL) in Corning, N.Y. Just 24 at the time, she landed the position and was immediately involved with the youth orchestra, a junior string ensemble, a community chorus, and the logistical aspects of coordinating all the concerts. A few months later, she was filling in as interim when the executive director left. At summer’s end, the OSFL board came to Szychulski and said it wanted to offer her the job.
“But I’d never applied for it,” she said, noting that, while the board had interviewed several people for the position, it noticed that she’d saved and raised more money than the organization had ever seen, and in just four short months.
Starting with a $200,000 budget, she grew it to $400,000, due in large part to launching the OSFL’s first major donor society.
Her next career stop led her to the executive director position with the Norwalk Symphony in Connecticut, which was celebrating its 70th anniversary at the time. Szychulski found that Connecticut has more orchestras per capita than any other state, and also learned more about raising money very quickly to help an organization that was financially struggling.
From Norwalk, she moved on the Erie Philharmonic, where she planned the organization’s 100th anniversary (taking place this fall) and, with a $1.5 million budget, created a strategic plan that balanced a budget that had not been balanced in a decade, showing a six-figure profit by the second year. That plan also helped to increase subscriber sales by 33%.
Concurrently, she earned a master’s degree in Arts Administration―— equivalent to an arts MBA — from Drexel University, and was one of the first students to earn that degree online.
It was Szychulski’s 2011 thesis at Drexel that Rhodes found to be of great interest when he first read her résumé.
“The first thing you see is a piece of paper in front of you, and what stood out was what she was doing in her master’s … the focus on social media and electronic media,” said Rhodes. “All of that is tremendously important, very topical, and very new.”
That thesis involved a survey of 797 professional organizations regarding their use of social media, which had a healthy 30% response. She documented how often they were posting on Facebook and Twitter, who in the organization was actually doing the posting on social media, and which orchestras were most active with social networks related to their overall music programs.
Szychulski explained that there are only 10 orchestras in the nation the size of the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics, and that most orchestras operate on a budget of $500,000; the SSO’s budget is $2 million.
“What I found was that orchestras of our size, not the big guys, not the little guys, are the organizations that are most active and are looking for awareness and audience-development efforts,” she told BusinessWest. “But I found a funny thing: everybody wants to be raising money online, but fewer than 15% actually asked anyone to make a donation online through their social media.”
Her 230-page thesis concludes, among other things, that the reason for so little online fund-raising is usually the lack of a strategic plan.
But while the Erie job was a good fit professionally, Szychulski desired to work in a more urban setting and with an orchestra that had a stronger connection to the community. Hearing about the SSO opportunity through the musical grapevine, she became intrigued, applied, and immediately became impressed with the hiring committee’s questions, as well as the answers to her queries.
“They had a headhunter, and she asked all the right questions to make sure I knew how to do my job,” Szychulski explained. “They took the time to get to know me as a person, and looked to see that Kevin and I would be compatible as partners.”
During the hiring process from February to May of this year, Szychulski saw that the SSO was looking for a long-term relationship.
“This was an organization that wanted me to be happy, fit into their culture, and really flourish with them,” Szychulski recalled. “It was all about the good fit and how we would all get along together.”
With all parties agreeing it was a good match, she officially started on Aug. 1.

Being in Harmony
Because orchestras in different regions of the country aren’t competing with each other, many marketing ideas are shared, but it’s the creativity on the part of the local symphony management to correctly collaborate with others in the community that is the key to success, she told BusinessWest.
One of those shared ideas worked well in Erie, she went on, referring to something called the Beat Beethoven 5K road race, complete with a man dressed as the famous composer setting the pace for runners from the Erie Running Club and other fitness enthusiasts in a creative collaboration with a different demographic, set to the sounds of Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony. The opus, which happens to be 30 minutes and 17 seconds long, offers ample time for most runners to finish a 3.1-mile race and receive a voucher for a ticket to an Erie Philharmonic concert.
Similar imaginative and collaborative efforts could be employed in Springfield to help the SSO reach and surpass its goals for raising money — and awareness, said Szychulski. With 50% of revenue for a typical orchestra directly attributed to ticket sales and subscriptions, the SSO has to raise the rest through donations, sponsorships, tuition to the youth orchestra, and other means.
To that end, the orchestra launched the Forever Symphony, Campaign for Permanence three years ago. It has enabled the organization to raise $7 million for an endowment, said Szychulski, adding that, before she arrived, Springfield’s local arts directors supporting the creation of a proposed cultural district had already begun meeting monthly to share programming schedules and ideas for how to support each other collaboratively.
Internally at the SSO, mid-October saw the first scheduled monthly meeting of the orchestra board’s marketing committee made up of board and staff, including Jane Clark, the new director of development, and Ann Rasmussen, the new director of marketing.
And while collaboration with outside entities isn’t anything new to the SSO, Rhodes feels that Szychulski’s past engagement in unique partnering efforts will be a huge asset to the organization.
“And Kevin’s product is beautiful,” Szychulski said, adding quickly that there will be no altering of what Rhodes has been producing so successfully for years. However, she will now be able to plan around what he does on stage and, through community collaborations, grow and diversify the audience and create more connections between the orchestra and the community.

The Finale
Szychulski told BusinessWest that she believes she’s found a good fit personally and professionally, and she’s ready to take her competitive nature, forged while selling Girl Scout cookies, and use it to strike a chord with as many different demographic groups as she can in the Pioneer Valley.
“It’s like the slogan we put on some of our PR materials: ‘there’s a little bit of symphony in everyone,’” she explained, adding that it’s her unofficial job description to prove that point.
As for Rhodes, he’s looking forward to working with Szychulski to propel the SSO to new heights.
“As we adapt to an entirely new marketing paradigm, Audrey’s expertise and enthusiasm for remaining on top of trends is going to be absolutely integral to the future success of the orchestra,” he said. “I’m very confident we’re in great hands.”

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss
Women Mentors Help Peers Realize Their Potential

Mo McGuinness, center, has been a mentor to Karah Douglass, left, and Jillian Duclos

Mo McGuinness, center, has been a mentor to Karah Douglass, left, and Jillian Duclos since she hired them to work in Sylvester’s and Roberto’s restaurants.

Karah Douglass hasn’t forgotten the day she had to fire an employee at Sylvester’s restaurant. “I was so scared, I panicked,” said the eatery’s operations manager.
So she called Maureen “Mo” McGuinness, who owns Sylvester’s and Roberto’s Restaurant in Northampton, asking for advice.
McGuinness has not only been her employer, she has also been a mentor to Douglass since they met six years ago. She told Douglass not to apologize when she let the person go and to keep the conversation brief.
“I always say ‘I’m sorry’ to everyone,” Douglass said, adding that, in this instance, she refrained from doing so. “And after I called the employee, I felt very empowered, strong, and confident.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without Mo,” she continued. “She pushes me every day to be a better manager and leader, and whenever I talk to her, she reminds me that I am amazing. Before I met her, I had never made decisions on my own, but she taught me to follow my instincts, that I know what I am doing.”
Sue Rondeau, vice president of Operations for Weed Man in West Springfield, has also relied on mentors to keep her confident about her ability to succeed. She was studying to earn her master’s degree in business administration at Bay Path College when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to stop taking classes to get treatment.
She was also working full-time, and when the treatment ended, she didn’t think she had the strength to continue in the MBA program.
But encouragement from mentor Laurie Rosner, an adjunct professor at Bay Path who has spent years in the banking industry, inspired Rondeau to return to school. She also received support from other women she had met at the college and says the mentoring she received has changed her leadership style at work and caused her to become more compassionate.
“I used to think, when you went to school or work, you needed to leave your troubles at the door. Now, as a manager, I realize that things don’t just happen before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m.,” she said. “I have learned flexibility through example in the last five years and have had a paradigm shift.”
Rondeau is one of many women who have been mentored by Rosner, who summed up her mentoring approach this way: “my purpose in life is to push others to become uncomfortable so they can become the person they were meant to be. I tell my students they are meant to achieve greatness, and if they are not uncomfortable, they are not growing.
“It takes courage to do new things, but the women I network with are usually on a path; we all need to push beyond our fears because women deserve to be in boardrooms,” she went on, adding that experience provides women with perspective and builds up their bank of knowledge. “I tell women it’s about making mistakes and failing forward.”
Studies have shown that mentoring is powerful, and most women with a record of significant accomplishments can point to a number of supportive people during their careers. A recent study conducted by Susan Schor, a management professor at Pace University, showed that female corporate presidents and vice presidents have had up to four strong mentoring relationships that lasted two to five years, while only half of their male counterparts have ever had a mentor.
Many female executives are becoming advocates for other women, whom they meet in women’s organizations, during educational classes, or within their own workplace.
They say they get as much from the women they mentor as they give them. But unlike males, women turn to their mentors for the emotional support they need to succeed, which can happen when they are faced with a challenging situation or when they find it difficult to balance responsibilities in the workplace with their home lives, especially if they are caring for children or aging parents.
In fact, research shows what they do for each other is different from what occurs in most male mentoring relationships. A 2010 study by the nonprofit organization Catalyst, which promotes inclusive workplaces for women, found male mentors tend to sponsor each other rather than just provide advice and support, while women say gender differences make the emotional boost they give to each other critical.
“We need to continue to mentor other women so we can continue to build each other up,” Rosner said. “Women are so hard on themselves. They need to tell themselves they are smart and say, ‘I believe in me’ even if no one else does. If you accept yourself, the struggle goes away. It’s freedom to say, ‘I can be who I am because I am smart and I believe in myself.’”

Battling Barriers
Beth Lorenz owns the Vehicle Inspection Center Inc. in Greenfield and has been in the automotive industry for 27 years. “In 2010, I downsized my business life as an auto dealer and automotive partner so I could upsize my personal life,” she told BusinessWest. “It has been a journey that included selling a dealership, closing a dealership, separating from a family enterprise, divorcing, and re-establishing myself in a smaller business.”
Lorenz said she could not have achieved her goals without a few individuals who believed in her. She has had male and female mentors who have been younger and older than she is, but turned to the females when she was feeling unsure of herself.
One of them is retired Franklin County Clerk of Courts Eve Blakeslee. “She taught me how to be confident and strong and believe in myself,” Lorenz said.

Laurie Rosner, left, has been a mentor to Sue Rondeau

Laurie Rosner, left, has been a mentor to Sue Rondeau, and was instrumental in her decision to return to the MBA program at Bay Path College after cancer treatment.

When she had difficulty making a decision, Blakeslee would have her voice her thoughts out loud. “I needed someone to say, ‘you are thinking the right way,’” Lorenz said, adding that she feels calm whenever she is around Blakeslee.
Other mentors have taught her different lessons, and she was proud to name them. Susan McDonald from Smith College, who is her healthcare proxy, “challenges me to be the best woman I can be in all phases of my life — at home, at work, and in play.” Meanwhile, Becky Caplice, president and CEO of Greenfield Savings Bank, “demonstrates true love of community and possibilities through hard work, integrity and honesty.”
Then there’s Regina Curtis, executive director of Resource Development at the Greenfield Community College Foundation, who made Lorenz understand the value of networking, while the late Nancie Chamberlin “believed in me when I did not, was a fierce advocate of truth and justice, and was full of love …lots and lots of love. She encouraged me to open myself up to the heart of others.”
While some might wonder what love has to do with business, many of the women BusinessWest interviewed talked about being “compassionate leaders” and how women have changed the culture of the workplace, and will continue to do so as their numbers grow.
Figures from the U.S. Department of Labor Women project that women will account for 51% of the increase in total labor force growth between 2008 and 2018. And women say their expectations have had an impact on employers. “If employees are happy, a company does well,” Rondeau said. “The focus has shifted from the top down to the bottom up.”
McGuinness talked about the importance of keeping everyone happy, from customers to employees, which requires a woman to be compassionate, yet strong. “We have to prove we are solid and can play our game right, but also have compassion when people have challenges,” she said.
The mentoring Jillian Duclos received from McGuinness has allowed her to grow and inspired her to pursue her interest in politics. Since they met, Duclos has not only been a rising star in McGuinness’ restaurant businesses, she has also been a volunteer coordinator for State Rep. Aaron Vega, communications director for Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, and campaign manager for Holyoke City Councilor Jason Ferreira, which was her first venture into the political arena.
“I had never done it before,” she said, adding that McGuinness taught her what she knew about fund-raising, and she recently landed an internship with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Duclos met McGuinness when she was 18, and said her mentoring began after she was hired at Sylvester’s. The 24-year-old explained that, as time went on, McGuinness expected more and more of her. She met those demands and said she hopes to pay forward what she has received.
“You want to give back what people have given to you. Mo encouraged me to return to school and helped me to go on and do bigger and better things,” Duclos said, adding they attended the Women’s Fund of Western Mass. Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impact together.

Shining Examples
Many women, including McGuinness, Lorenz, and Rondeau, have been successful in male-dominated industries. They were among a small group of female pioneers in Western Mass., and others look up to them today as their role models.
But these women say their journey was made easier due to their own mentors. Auto-dealer owner Lorenz was featured in Time magazine in 2009 when she was chosen to receive the Time Dealer of the Year Award for outstanding performance and being a valued member of the community. She called McDonald when she was in the airport on her way to speak to a crowd of 22,000 people at the National Automobile Dealers Assoc. Convention and had a case of the jitters.
“She has shown me how to be a very strong person,” Lorenz said, adding that the support she received was reassuring, even though they were in different industries.
Since that time, other women have sought her advice. “Women need to see other women who are confident and capable in their industry because they don’t have that opportunity very often. It gives them someone to talk to when they are not feeling that way and allows them to move forward,” Lorenz told BusinessWest.
McGuinness said it is still a struggle for women to rise to the top, especially if they are in male-dominated industries. In fact, people sometimes assume she is an employee of her two restaurants, while that never happens to her male co-owner. “It’s still a male-dominated world, and even though we have made it, young women struggle with the same issues that we did,” she said. “But today I won’t do business with someone if they don’t treat me the same way they would treat a man.”
Rosner concurred. “It’s about respect. We have had to fight the fight to stay on top internally within our organizations,” she said, adding that she started her banking career as a receptionist in 1984. “But you can do anything you believe you can do, and leading with compassion is what makes us amazing women as we help and mentor one another.”

Path to Success
Rosner continuously prods her students to realize their potential. At the end of every class she teaches and in e-mails, her message is the same. “I tell them, ‘now go and be great.’”
So, as more women step up to the plate to help themselves and others, their belief in what is possible continues to grow.
Rosner encourages all women to ask questions and do things even when they feel fearful. “The world is limitless, but you are only as good as the questions,” she said. “So, if you see a woman you admire, ask her, ‘Will you be my mentor?’”

Sections Women in Businesss
WPO Provides a Unique Support System for Women in Business

Cathy Crosky

Cathy Crosky says WPO helps second-stage companies — those with more than 10 employees and $1 million in annual revenues — address their specific needs.

Laura Wright calls it her “sounding board.”
That’s one of the many descriptive words and phrases that she and other members applied to the Women Presidents Organization, or WPO, and its Springfield chapter. And they hint broadly at a specific, and distinctive, form of support provided to those who have found it.
Created for women who own or manage what are known as second-stage companies — those with more than 10 employees and $1 million in annual revenues — or direct large nonprofit agencies, WPO is unique in that regard, and also in the way it helps members address their specific problems and issues, said Wright, president of CSW Inc. in Ludlow.
She told BusinessWest that the monthly meetings put her in a room with successful individuals facing similar challenges — and possessing a common desire to help such peers. And this is just the environment she needs at this stage of her life and career.
“I’m in a male-dominated industry,” said Wright, whose company manufactures printing plates and cutting dies for the packaging industry and also offers brand-management services to consumer product companies. “But I found results-oriented women in the group who were focused on their businesses and very successful. And they’ve helped me grow my business.”
Meghan Sullivan concurred.
“It’s very refreshing to be in a room of people that have very similar experiences,” said Sullivan, managing partner of the Springfield-based law firm Sullivan Hayes & Quinn. “Whether it’s being a leader and shouldering that burden or balancing the obligations of work and the joys and obligations of family — we’re all going through the same kinds of things.”
Cathy Crosky, chair of the Springfield chapter of WPO, said the group now boasts 10 members (most chapters have no more than 20) who meet monthly for three hours. They represent a number of business sectors — from manufacturing to professional services to the nonprofit realm — but share common challenges inside and outside the workplace.
“Once you get your business over a million, it requires a different kind of leadership than when you started the business,” said Crosky, an executive coach and organizational transformation consultant with Charter Oak Consulting Group in Williamstown. “You need different things at a different stages, and women don’t have many role models or mothers that did what we do, but they still have the same challenges.”
The organization’s website announces that it provides “a professionally facilitated, non-judgmental forum for second-stage peers to bring the ‘genius out of the group,’ accelerate the growth of their businesses, and to promote the acceptance and advancement of women entrepreneurs in all industries.”
Translating, and elaborating, Crosky said the group makes extensive use of a roundtable process called Peerspectives, developed by the Edward Lowe Foundation (named after the entrepreneur who, among other things, gave the world cat litter) to drill down on an issue and help the individual presenting a dilemma or goal benefit from collective peer wisdom.
“We ask questions, and that requires the person who is looking for feedback to talk through their issue based on the questions,” she said, adding that the group doesn’t provide answers, but rather helps members forge their own. “So, rather than being told, ‘this is what you should do,’ there is a series of questions that brings problem solving to a deeper level — for them and for us.”
For this issue and its focus on women in business, we spoke with a number of members of the Springfield chapter of WPO to find out how this organization benefits its members, and why its roundtable format is successful in generating results for all those involved in the discussions.

Accountability Now
Shalu Arora, president of Skylightsys Strategic Staffing, an information-technology staffing agency in East Hartford, Conn., started her company eight years ago, and is known in entrepreneurial circles as a ‘gazelle’ because of the speed with which her company grew; she hit $1 million in sales in her second year.
And as a gazelle, she has different needs — and conversations — than those who are just getting a business off the ground. Being in a room full of people who understand her situation, mostly because they’ve been there themselves, is one of the biggest benefits from being a WPO member, she said.
“A startup doesn’t need any processes,” Arora told BusinessWest. “Second-stage business owners need the right advice in terms of legal, compliance, staff management, employee handbooks … the list goes on. You go from managing yourself and a few others to having a large group, and there’s a lot that goes with that.”

From left, Shalu Arora, Meghan Sullivan, Pattie Hallberg, and Laura Wright

From left, Shalu Arora, Meghan Sullivan, Pattie Hallberg, and Laura Wright say WPO members are held accountable for taking the steps necessary to solve their issues.

She said she joined WPO to increase her network of business leaders, but also to help build and hone her leadership skills — and the roundtable discussions have certainly helped her do that. “You’re not here to sell yourself or your company, and in every other organization, you have to put your game face on,” she explained. “This is not about a sales opportunity; it’s about a true way to build your leadership skills.”
Arora’s situation, and outlook, are typical of those who have joined the Springfield chapter, one of 105 around the world. Their individual stories vary, but their motivations for joining the organization are essentially the same: they want to grow their businesses or nonprofits, and they want to grow professionally.
And they’ve come to understand that the best way to do that is to be around people who understand what it takes to do both, and can, as the WPO website suggests, pull the collective genius out of the group.
People like Pattie Hallberg.
The CEO of the Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts, based in Holyoke, Hallberg is a member of WPO and also involved with the Longmeadow Business Group, which is comprised mostly of men, and said there really is no other women’s group that maintains the continual focus on education and business development that WPO does.
A year ago, Hallberg was looking for opportunities to explore different aspects of business and management, and WPO came into a conversation with a friend. She joined, and helps brings the nonprofit perspective into the group’s discussions, with the understanding that it’s the same perspective of those in business.
“There’s a place for nonprofit conversation that people may think is a little bit different than a business conversation, but there’s really not that much difference — we just have different products,” Hallberg said, adding that she’s intrigued by the breadth and depth of issues put on the table for discussion.
Some of them are strictly business- and bottom-line-oriented, she went on, while others involve the overriding assignment of balancing work and life — and finding a formula for succeeding at both.
Wright noted that many discussions involve how to take a business to the next level, and these conversations are multi-faceted, involving more than spread sheets, sales projections, and marketing strategies.
“Those are the most interesting conversations; it’s a great forum for making a change and making a business what you want it to be,” she explained. “And that all goes back to the members treating each other as the whole person, not just as a businessperson.”
Perhaps the one word that came up most often in commentary about WPO and how it benefits members was accountability. If women want to grow professionally and personally, they have to put plans in place and affect change where it’s needed, said Sullivan, adding that the group works diligently to keep members’ feet to the fire.
Indeed, if the previous month’s meeting spent a good deal of time on one of the member’s concerns, that member should expect to report what’s happened since in the very next meeting, said Sullivan, who, when asked how accountability is achieved, was quick to respond.
“They ask you,” she said, laughing. “They ask, ‘did you do it?’ And they ask why you did or didn’t do it; they put you right on the spot, and it forces you to face that you’re procrastinating, or it forces you to have a perspective that you didn’t have, but you should have had.”
In addition to the Peerspectives roundtable, there are other methods of learning through WPO, including articles and books, business-planning methods, self-assessment tools, and presenting and discussing various leadership topics, said Crosky. But the group has attended some retreats staged by the Edward Lowe Foundation, and a recent addition to the schedule is a new annual conference in Rhode Island with the WPO chapters from Boston and Rhode Island, which allows the Springfield chapter to expand its network and collectively learn from others facing similar challenges.

Tapping into Wisdom
Arora told BusinessWest that it’s hard to look at the bottom line and say her company’s continued growth is due to WPO, but she can state with confidence that it has definitely helped.
“If you help the leader, you help the company,” she said. “I’ve made bolder, better, and swifter decisions than before I was part of this group.”
Enabling its members to say such things is among the many goals of the WPO organization, which acts as a sounding board, as Wright described, or as a board of directors, as others have noted — or as a tough, yet compassionate, group of peers, which is perhaps the most accurate description.
And one can’t underestimate the power of peers.

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss
Network of Women Entrepreneurs Educates and Inspires Budding Women Business Owners

Sharon Styffe

Sharon Styffe says the Network for Women Entrepreneurs fills a need in the region for a resource to assist those looking to start or grow a business.

Sharon Styffe, dean of Workforce and Professional Development at Holyoke Community College (HCC), says that coming up with a successful new business concept is a challenge that comes in two parts: having a good idea, and identifying a market to buy that idea.
“It’s one thing to do what you’re good at,” she told BusinessWest, “but its quite another thing to find something you’re good at — and that the market will buy. You can’t just sell something that’s your passion; it has to be someone else’s need — because otherwise it’s just an organized hobby.”
These are just some of the many thoughts she tries to impress upon the growing number of participants in something called the Network of Women Entrepreneurs, which meets every other week at the Kittredge Center on the HCC campus.
As the name suggests, this initiative, which Styffe created last fall, is indeed a network, one in which ideas are exchanged, common issues and problems are discussed, and people leave the room with more to think about than when they arrived. It is intended for those already in business, those who would like to be some day, and those who need to decide if being in business for themselves is the correct career path to take.
Mary Kearney is actually in two of those categories — sort of. She already has one operating enterprise, called CleanScape Inc., a commercial cleaning service she founded 18 years ago, as well as a fledgling enterprise still mostly in the hobby stage — a niche graphic design company for women’s clothing — that she would like to make her primary business pursuit.
“Although I’m an entrepreneur, cleaning has never excited me as much as the arts,” she explained, “especially since that’s where my skills are.”
Kearney’s desire to grow her graphic arts enterprise brought her to the Network of Women Entrepreneurs, but discussions within that group, and her own due diligence, have brought her to the conclusion that her concept might be too cost-prohibitive. However, further introspection — and help from the group — may eventually lead to the acceptable alternative of folding some aspects of that dream into her cleaning venture (more on that later).
Nancy Fields, president of Fields Graphic Design in Leeds, is another participant in the network who said the informative, interactive sessions have given her new perspective on what it means to be in business and serve customers.
“One of the speakers was a former marketing person and she was an eye-opener for me,” she said, “because she made me see that I’m not just a person doing a job for someone else. I’m actually running a business and I really have something to offer here.”
Currently the group consists of business owners involved in writing, Website and graphic design, food production, commercial office cleaning, accounting, hair design, radio talent, healthy food preparation, end-of-life care, publishing, and home organization.
Each venture, and each entrepreneur, is different, but there are common denominators that include everything from clearing the many hurdles involved with taking a concept from the drawing board to the marketplace, to the difficulties women face in finding a balance between life and work.
For this issue and its focus on women in business, BusinessWest took in a session of the network Styffe facilitates to see how it helps members juggle the many balls they have in the air and take their businesses to the next level.

Life in the Middle
Before she came to HCC from a large community college in Ohio last October, Styffe, a single mother and full-time working professional with experience in education, banking, and workforce development, did some extensive research on Western Mass.
And that due diligence led her to conclude that it was a “hot bed” for small-business development.
Looking deeper, and calling on her own background, she recognized a need within the community for a resource for women business owners and those with entrepreneurial urges, one that would provide information, inspiration, and, perhaps most importantly, dialogue between such individuals.
Thus, she launched the network, which is based on a program she created at Montgomery County Community College in Pennyslvania. One of the main reasons to target women, she explained, is their continuing roles as nurturers and caretakers, which makes them “natural multi-taskers.”
“It doesn’t matter how far up the career ladder one goes, that nurturing quality is still something that is ingrained in you from when you were little,” she said, “and that makes you perfect for creating a business, and a program like this captures that spirit.”
Styffe has a number of initiatives she wants to launch at HCC, but the Network of Women Entrepreneurs is the first, and a place where women business owners can form a new community of learning in an accepting environment.
Just a few weeks ago, one of the women attendees presented her company and her products, explaining to the other women how she got to the that point with all her struggles, including FDA approvals, and she brought her newborn baby with her.
“Her husband was working that night,” Styffe said. “And everybody completely understood.”

Information Overload

WomenNetworkMembers

Donna Bliznak, left, recently addressed the network on the broad subject of commercial lending, providing insight for members, including Mary Kearney, center, and Nancy Fields.

At a recent Tuesday evening session, guest speaker Donna Bliznak, vice president of Commercial Lending for PeoplesBank, presented a comprehensive inside look at the lending process, and at what banks want to see and hear from business owners as they consider loans for various purposes — starting up, next-level expansion, or simply weathering economic downturns.
Other speakers have presented on such topics as legal issues involved in getting started, personnel recruitment, branding and marketing, and access to common capital.
The scheduling of the session topics is based loosely on the plan one should follow if they are just starting up their business. In between the expected topics, other presentations are also booked for the rest of the year, based on what the attendees want to learn.
But one of Styffe’s concerns is that attendees not get overwhelmed.  The sheer volume of information packed into some of the recent sessions can burn them out.
“The topics have been really great and the speakers haven’t relaxed it at all,” Styffe said. “Some of these women haven’t had financial training; they’ve been consumers, but with a business, it’s a whole new ball game.  You have to be prepared to talk to someone to sell them on the long-term prospect of what you do.”
Which leads her to the importance of creating an effective business plan.
While Styffe has seen some people get their ventures off the ground without a business plan, one is needed to help the entrepreneur set goals and create effective strategies for reaching them. An up-to-date plan can also help determine possible course changes for businesses experiencing growing pains.
Fields, for example, was doing graphic design work for 20 years when she lost a major client, forcing her to step back and look at where her business was and how to take it where she wanted it to go.
“I have to look at what I’m doing and why I’m doing it,” she said, adding that her business plan is addressing such questions. “I have to look at money, and now start really thinking of my work as a business.”
In Fields’ situation, Styffe talked about the importance of developing a pipeline of customers, a client network of current and future customers to draw from, which enables a business to weather downturns and not be dependant on one or a few clients.
Fields said she started attending network sessions upon realizing not only that she needed to create this pipeline, but that hard work and effective networking would be needed to create such a prospective client list.
“I know I need to network now, especially for online marketing and to refresh my brand,” she said.
Kearney’s CleanScape has fluctuated between 17 and 33 employees during various economic ups and downs, but remained generally stable.
“At times I couldn’t find enough employees to keep up with the work,” she said, “and other times, doctors’ offices would hire their own staff to clean, just to save money during the tough economy.”
But, despite her relative success in a competitive field, something was missing — a passion for the work. And that’s why she desired something in what she would consider her chosen field — art.
An early love of murals eventually turned into a hobby centered on illustration, and then a very small start-up venture called ArtWear Gallery, which offers Kearney’s upscale illustrations on women’s shirts, blouses, and casual- to business-style tops. As a weekend graphic designer and illustrator, Kearney wanted to turn ArtWear Gallery into her primary business focus. This was the mindset she took to her first network sessions, but further examination of the concept changed her outlook.
“I found that in this country, our technology with dyes isn’t as advanced as overseas, and because my company would not be able to buy the volume of garments initially, like plain tee shirts are bought in bulk, it just wasn’t going to be affordable.”
She reluctantly shifted her hopes and dreams away from ArtWear Gallery and back to commercial cleaning, but with more services and the assistance of a local contractor. Now, in addition to routine, detail, and specialty cleaning, she’ll offer space-organizing services, window and carpet cleaning, composite tile floor refinishing, building repairs, remodels and renovations.
But something even more exciting has happened, thanks in part to the HCC group. Kearney is now considering merging her expanded commercial cleaning company to include different forms of her passion for art.
“Now, I’ve added wall painting, including contemporary faux textures and effects, personalized logo and original mural design,” she said, adding that all this allows her to satisfy that artistic passion that she was missing for years in the cleaning business.

Guiding Light
Styffe said she isn’t surprised that people like Kearney and Fields are able to make important career decisions through the help of the network.
She told BusinessWest that this is what happens when people with common dreams and similar challenges come together to learn and, in some cases, teach.
Over time, she believes the initiative can help enable a number of ventures to thrive, add jobs, and perhaps inspire new ideas to meet recognized needs.
After all, that’s what a successful business does.

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss
Local United Way to Form Women’s Leadership Council

Dora Robinson, left, and Kathy Dube

Dora Robinson, left, and Kathy Dube say the timing is right for creation of a Women’s Leadership Council in Greater Springfield.

Kathy Dube says that talk of creating a women’s leadership council within the United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV) has been ongoing for some time now.
There was never any doubt about the benefits to creating such an organization, both within the community and for the women taking part, she explained, noting that there are now 130 such councils operating across the country in partnership with United Way chapters. And they have been effective in reaching out to women leaders in the community to engage and involve (the two words you see most often with respect to such groups) them in meeting the most pressing needs in a given area through donations of time, leadership, and financial support.
No, the only question facing the UWPV was whether a WLC, as they’re called, would duplicate the efforts of other women’s organizations in the area, such as the Women’s Fund of Western Mass. and the Professional Women’s Chamber of Commerce, said Dube, senior vice president and private banking officer with TD Bank and current chair of the UWPV board of directors. And some due diligence has determined that this would not be the case, she told BusinessWest, noting that while those groups and others do some of the things a leadership council would, they don’t do them all, and a council could fill what she described as a critical void.
“I felt there was a missing link between the professional women’s groups in Greater Springfield and the nonprofit world,” she explained. “And this is the perfect solution that pulls it all together. I don’t think there was a group that was doing all that a council does — fundraising, but also mentoring women in the process and getting actively involved in a key community need, and helping to put together a plan that solves an issue that we may have in Springfield.”
Thus, a 20-member “design team” is taking the concept for a leadership council from the drawing board to reality, said Dora Robinson, president and CEO of the UWPV and a member of that team. Some of the next steps in the process, and there are many, include everything from recruitment of members to creating an awareness campaign, to initiating discussions about possible projects for the council to undertake.
And there are intriguing examples to consider from across the country. In Cincinnati, for example, a WLC got directly involved in the plight of homeless women, doing everything from raising money for a new housing initiative to actually decorating the apartments. Meanwhile, the council affiliated with the United Way of Greater Chicago is involved in a partnership with the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, and specifically an initiative known as its middle school academic intervention program, designed to ensure that girls stay on track to graduating from high school. And the council affiliated with the United Way of Northern New Jersey is helping to improve quality of live for those whose situation is described by the acronym ALICE: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.
In each case, the initiatives involve the three pillars of leadership council activity — financial support, volunteerism, and mentoring, said Dube, adding that the UWPV’s group will do the same in this market.

An Involved Process
Dube and Robinson both said that the catalyst for moving forward with the WLC came at a United Way conference in Nashville roughly a year ago.
One of the workshops was on women’s leadership councils, how they’ve evolved, and the many intriguing issues they were involved with, said Dube. “I left there thinking, we have to do this in the Springfield area.”
The reasons for doing so are obvious and many, she went on, but they come down to two: a strong base of professional women who want to get directly involved in the community, and an abundance of issues that could be addressed through donations of money, time, and talent.
“The timing is right for something like this in the Springfield area,” she told BusinessWest. “There are many issues to be addressed here.”
Robinson said the number of councils nationwide is growing steadily, primarily in response to national trends involving women, wealth, philanthropy, and effectively harnessing that power and influence. Among those trends:

• The Internal Revenue Service reported in 2010 that 2.5 million (38.8%) of the top wealth holders in the U.S. were women. These individuals had a combined net worth of almost $4.2 trillion. As of 2011, 50% of top wealth holders were women;
• In 2010, the Center for Women’s Business Research found that one in 10 women in the U.S. was a business owner, and their companies continue to grow at twice the rate of all firms; and
• Women live longer than men, meaning they will end up in charge of much of the $41 trillion expected to pass from generation to generation in the next 50 years.

“Given the fact that no two communities are alike with respect to the affluence and influence of women, the number of women-owned businesses, and opportunities for women to give and be involved, UWPV has a unique opportunity to build on the success of the national Women’s Leadership Council framework,” said Robinson. “We are committed to developing, designing, and implementing a program that is fitted to our local needs.”
And by that, she meant a council that can not only address recognized needs in the community, but also get women engaged and involved (there are those two words again) in not only creating a solution to a problem, but carrying it out.
Here’s how a women’s leadership conference works:
First, professional women are recruited to join. Membership involves an annual monetary donation, with those funds used to help finance projects the group will take part in. These donations vary with the market, said Dube, adding that while some councils assess $2,500 or more, the group in Hartford started with a few hundred dollars, opting to gradually increase that amount, a model that will likely be followed in this market.
Recruitment efforts are already underway on an informal basis, said Dube, adding that the design team will provide a solid base on which to build. One key to membership, she noted, is to make the council large enough to enable it to be effective, but not so large that members cannot be directly involved in a specific initiative.
“We want to make sure we know what we’re doing before we open it up to too many people,” she explained, adding that the initial goal will be 50 to 75. “But we have to make sure that those 50 to 75 are actively engaged in what we’re doing.”
The next big consideration is deciding what to do with the funds that are raised, or how to get the membership involved in the community it has been tasked with serving.
Existing councils are involved in a wide array of initiatives, as those examples from Cincinnati, New England, and Chicago clearly show, said Robinson, adding that a small yet effective council in Greenfield has been active with the broad issue of literacy and putting books in the hands of children.
And the Springfield-area group will be diligent in selecting projects that are impactful, but will also directly involve women in the group, said Dube, adding that many endeavors involving councils focus on helping women break from poverty.
“There have been discussions about doing a scholarship program for women who want to re-enter the workforce and need to go back to school to do that,” she noted. “And at the same time, we would weave into that mentoring and financial literacy training; that’s one possibility.”
The council will obviously look to avoid duplicating efforts already underway, said Robinson, noting, for example, that early childhood literacy, while an important issue, is being addressed by other groups, especially the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation.
“Initially, we’ll be looking for a project that has a start and a finish, so we can have some success,” Dube explained, citing the initiative in Cincinnati as one to emulate in that regard. “What was great about that project was that they recognized a need for housing, they went out and raised the money for it, and they did it — there was a start and an end, and now they’re moving on to another project.
“I think we’ll also try to find a project where we accomplish some objectives in a relatively short period of time, maybe a year,” she went on, “and then move onto another project that might be entirely different.”
Whatever direction the council takes, mentoring and direct involvement will be part of the equation, said Robinson, because those on the design team, and others who have expressed interest in the council concept have indicated that they want to do much more than write checks.
“There has been a fairly consistent theme around mentoring,” she noted. “Women want to be involved with other young women or girls in mentoring relationships. How that gets crafted into what we’re doing will be determined over the next few months.”

Impact Statement
The unofficial timeline for the council calls for a public launch sometime this fall, with planning and recruitment to take place in the months preceding.
But already there is considerable momentum for this initiative, which organizers believe has enormous potential to harness the desire among professional women in this region to donate more than money (although that’s certainly an important part of the equation) to the task of addressing some of the deeply rooted issues in area communities.
And addressing them by getting these women engaged and involved.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss
It’s Time to Make Some Colorful Statements with Your Attire

By Kate Vishnyakov
When it comes to clothing for the professional woman, practicality wins over trendiness every time. With that said, regardless of profession and what you are able to wear for work, this season’s obsession with color can help brighten up your look.
If you’ve been flipping through magazines, watching news networks, or taking in a fashion show, you’ve seen that the big, bold, color is everywhere. Vibrant color palettes range from fuchsia pinks to sea foam greens, lemon yellow, citrus oranges, and deep Laguna blues — remember “the bolder the better” is the season’s mantra.
So one may wonder why local offices, banks, and law firms are full of the proverbial ‘women in black’? The endless uniform of un-color is on the streets, at coffee shops, meetings, and more. The safe, ubiquitous black is everywhere. In a day and age where blending in is not highly desired, the row of black jackets, dresses, and suits hanging in your closet are not helping you stand out.
Adding a splash (or even a smidge more) of color can help you stand out, while still having a professional, polished image.

A Crash Course in Color
Are you wondering what the secret is to successfully pulling off a bright look without looking like a fashion victim? One simple and easy step is to go bolder with a color similar to what you usually wear. For example move from black to navy. If you regularly wear navy or gray try cobalt blue and indigo. If most of your wardrobe is brown, take a look at coral. And last, but not least, trade in the power red for the very ‘in-season’ fuchsia pink.
Other suggestions include keeping the rest of your outfit neutral and accessories minimal. Use a light color shell or a blouse. And for shoes and bags, consider light brown, tan or camel color.

Go Bold, or Go Home
If wearing bold color head-to-toe is too big of a leap, keep bright colors close to your face and wear darker colors on a bottom. Color combinations that work well together include navy and green, coral and tan, golden yellow and gray. The safe proportion is 75% of one color to 25% of another in any outfit. Remember, you don’t need to be an extravert or attention seeker to wear color to stand out a bit.
Seek out jewel tones on your next shopping trip. Some call them “the grown-up way to wear color.” As Kelly Ayotte, U.S. Senator from New Hampshire says, “wear a pastel jacket and you might look too girly, wear a bold primary hue and it can be too brash. But opt for a rich, saturated jewel tone like amethyst/orchid shade, and it’s hard to go wrong.”
Another important key to wearing color is a fit. The slim silhouette is important when you wear bold colors or print. Straight, slim leg pant, preferably an ankle length, or a pencil skirt will go well with a longer jacket-and-pants look, or a shorter one-button jacket with a skirt. This rule will work for both petites and fuller women. Keep the volume on a top or on a bottom, but not both to avoid the kitschy look.

Dresses Mean Business
Meanwhile, have you noticed a plethora of brightly colored, arm-baring sheaths on many powerful women? From the likes of First Lady Michele Obama to ABC’s Dianne Sawyer, to the head of International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, it is clear that dresses are ‘in’ at the office.
Stylist and blogger Susan Wagner of WorkingCloset.com says, “black dresses are usually too ‘date night’ for the office, but in other colors, frocks are fabulous. Once you find the silhouette that works for you and your office’s atmosphere, you will love the ease of wearing a dress.”
Just remember keep the fabrics and formality consistent with your work environment and observe conservative to-the-knee hemline and classic fit.

What’s Top 10 Now
1. White Blazer
2. Pencil, full, A-line skirts
3. Day dresses in bold colors
4. Slim leg pant
5. Silk button-down
6. Large black and white mod-style looks
7. Candy-colored leather as a day jacket
8. Pointy-toe shoes
9.  Neutral wedges
10. Bright tote bags
All good things in fashion recycle themselves. More or less, everything is “in.” Sparkling dresses from the Art Deco ’20s, mid-calve lengths from the ’30s, the ’40s’ chunky heels, full skirts of the ’50s, the ’60s’ mod dresses, ’70s’ hippy chic, ’80s’ suits, and ’90s’ grunge.
Each day you can live your decade of choice and wear what pleases you the most. There are endless ways to add color and style to your life this season. Please do it. Let’s make the world a more beautiful place… one woman in a time.  Here’s to a season filled with beauty, growth and fresh possibilities.

Kate Vishnyakov is owner of Kate Gray in East Longmeadow; (413) 525-2895.

Sections Women in Businesss
For Some Businesswomen, Roller Derby Has Become a Big Hit

The women competing in the growing sport of roller derby

The women competing in the growing sport of roller derby say the benefits are many, from camaraderie to hard work to empowerment.

Malea Rhodes called it “love at first bruise.”

That’s how she chose to describe her introduction roughly four years ago to the sport of roller derby — no, not that roller derby that Baby Boomers would remember watching on their Zeniths in the ’60s and ’70s, an activity that was more stage production than actual sport.

This is so-called flat-track roller derby, said Rhodes, and it’s real, and she and other members of an outfit called the Pair O Dice City Rollers (they broke off from a squad in Northampton, hence the name), have the bruises to prove it. But they also have some other things as well, she told BusinessWest, listing everything from a heightened sense of empowerment to the camaraderie that comes from both going into battle and the hours of practice and scrimmaging it takes to be ready for a bout.

“It’s a great sport because, in roller derby, everybody matters — it’s a total team effort,” said Rhodes, the team’s captain, who by day owns a pottery studio in Northampton and still works part-time at Webs America’s Yarn Store in Northampton, but when she puts on her skates becomes ‘Halle Pain Yo.’ “It really empowers everyone and gives them way more self-esteem than before they started.”

Words to this effect are being spoken by a growing number of women, from across many sectors of business and levels of entrepreneurship, who have discovered or rediscovered this sport in recent years. Some are invited by friends who have already learned how to hit and be hit, while others see the ads for something called ‘Fresh Meat Recruitment Night’ and show up, usually having no idea what they’re going to find.

Greta Shaver falls into the former category. She’s a sales associate and website assistant at Webs, who took up Malea on her invitation to check out roller derby. That was two years ago, and she’s still at it, serving the Rollers as a blocker or the player designated as the ‘swing,’ a more versatile blocker. “The swing’s job is to do everything in her power to get in the other team’s way,” she explained. “When I’m on the track, I’m looking around and usually trying to hit everything that’s not in a purple jersey.”

Meanwhile, Katie Stebbins is in the latter group.

“I showed up to fresh-meat night never thinking that I would love it almost as much as my children,” she joked. “I went to see what it was all about and how legitimate it was, and from the very first night when I hit the track and met the women and saw the seriousness they brought to this, I was hooked. I was completely hooked.”

Elaborating, Stebbins, who spent a decade working as a city planner in Springfield and currently has her own consulting firm as well as an online publication (more on that later), originally looked at roller derby from purely an economic-development standpoint. “My first reaction wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to skate for them; it was ‘what a great economic-development opportunity this is for the city — here’s this fast-growing sport that’s all over the world, and Springfield has a group of women dedicated to developing a team for the city.’”

But she’s passed the first two levels of training needed to get into game action, and is now anxious to hear her playing name (Springfield 413) heard at one of the Rollers’ tilts.

Her first opportunity may come on Feb. 17 in a game against the Baystate Brawlers, out of Worcester, at Interskate 91 South. Like other contests, this one will benefit a specific charity, still to be chosen. Previous bouts have benefited groups and causes ranging from the Westfield Boys & Girls Club to activities involving area Shriners, to something called Stupid Cancer, a nonprofit group that supports young adults battling the disease.

“There are many programs for kids battling cancer, and quite a few for older people, but not much for those in between, so we did something for them,” she said, adding that games have been attracting about 200 spectators on average, and she anticipates that this number will go up as the sport continues to gain acceptance.

For this edition and its focus on Women in Business, we take a break from the traditional issues and challenges facing this constituency and talk at length with some roll players — puns and plays on words are huge in this sport — about some of their greatest hits.

 

Jam Sessions

The Pair O Dice City Rollers

The Pair O Dice City Rollers draw women from all walks of life who are up for a challenge — and a good time.

The playing names on the Pair O Dice City roster speak volumes about the mindset of those who play this sport — or at least about their efforts to intimidate the opposition.

There’s ‘Reckless B Havior,’ ‘Eve N. Meaner,’ Olive R. Twisted,’ ‘Meryl Creep,’  ‘Donny Brook,’ and ‘Killer Krush,’ among others. Stebbins acknowledged that ‘Springfield 413’ probably won’t scare anyone, but she took that name to convey her passion for the City of Homes, not frighten the other team.

“My derby name is ‘Springfield,’ because I’m doing it for the city and for myself,” she explained. “Plus, Springfield’s a pretty badass city with all the natural disasters it’s had.”

Choosing a roller-derby name is maybe the last thing Stebbins thought she’d be doing as she navigates her way through life in her early 40s, but she’s certainly not alone with that task as the sport continues to pick up more participants and fans.

For those not familiar with the sport — and there are still many in that category — roller derby is played by two five-player teams skating in the same direction around a track. (The tracks used to be banked decades ago, but they are flat in most cases now). Games, or bouts, consist of a series of short matchups called ‘jams,’ during which a team’s designated scorer, called a ‘jammer,’ will attempt to lap the opposition.

Players on the track essentially play offense and defense at the same time — helping their own jammer while opposing the other team’s — although some play more of one than the other.

For each of the nearly two dozen people on — or nearly on — a Pair O Dice City roster, there is a different story about just how they came to be involved in this unique sport and its current resurgency worldwide.

Malea remembers watching the movie Whip It — which is about a teenager who joins a roller derby team, but Malea saw the poster featuring a girl in a helmet and figured it was about horseracing — and seeing a good deal of herself in one of the characters.

“Three-quarters of the way through the film, one of the main characters makes this comment, ‘I’m 36, and this is the first thing I’ve been good at,’” she recalled. “I’m 38 now … I thought that was pretty cool, so I put on some skates and went skating with some friends to make sure I still could, and later I saw a flyer to join roller derby.”

She told BusinessWest that roller-derby leagues — and there are now several of them across the region — are attracting a diverse mix of women of all ages, many of them professionals. When she first got involved with the Northampton team, there were a few lawyers, some nurses, and several schoolteachers on the roster. At present, the Rollers roster is most dominated by teachers and librarians, she said.

They will play several bouts over the next several months against teams from Maine, New Hampshire, and other parts of the Bay State.

 

Turn for the Better

Stebbins certainly wasn’t thinking about joining the ranks of those who are taking up the game when she saw the notice for fresh-meat night. Indeed, she was already juggling a few different career ventures.

One is her consultancy business, which currently involves a contract to be the project manager of Holyoke’s fledgling Innovation District. In that capacity, she manages the various opportunities involving economic investment around the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, which opened its doors late last fall. “I’m working with others to make sure that center isn’t an island, but is instead relevant to the rest of the community.”

And then, there’s her online publication, called byofamily.com, which Stebbins calls a “parenting lifestyle e-zine” focused on Holyoke and Springfield. She cashed out her retirement account to get it off the ground, but has never looked back.

“It’s Springfield’s first lifestyle magazine for families,” she explained, adding that it has enjoyed steady growth since it was launched nearly a year ago. “It’s not, ‘you should love Springfield; don’t be afraid of it’ — it’s not hit-you-over-the-head stuff. It’s 15 articles a month about people raising their families in Springfield and Holyoke.

“Being an entrepreneur is a pretty exciting adventure,” she went on. “I have ambitions to expand the magazine into Worcester and Albany, and eventually move it into several post-industrial cities on the Eastern Seaboard and then west.”

Stebbins never imagined adding at least two nights of roller-derby practices and scrimmages a week to what was an already-crowded schedule, but she found herself drawn in by the sport, its team atmosphere, the camaraderie, opportunities to compete, and even the hitting.

“I went from thinking, ‘I want to help this team become a part of Springfield’s economic-development future’ to ‘I want to skate for this team,’” she told BusinessWest. “I’ve never played team sports before like this, so it was whole new experience — working together as a team to accomplish a common goal.”

Shaver tells a somewhat similar story.

“I was a little intimidated at first, because sometimes you walk in and see a bunch of girls who look really tough,” she explained while recalling her first encounter with the sport and those who play it. “However, it turns out, when you join a roller-derby team, it’s like joining a family of 30 or 40 people; everyone is really supportive of one another, and that’s one of the big reasons why I’ve stuck with it for more than two years now and have no intention of stopping anytime soon.”

Elaborating, she said she graduated from Smith College, a women’s school where there was an “intense atmosphere of sisterhood,” something she missed after getting her diploma. Roller derby fills the gap in many ways.

“I really enjoy having a close-knit group of female friends who really support one another,” she explained. “We play hard on the track, we play hard at the after party, and we just have a great time.”

 

Taking It on the Shin

Shaver told BusinessWest that Rollers players and others who have taken up the sport usually make sure to tell family members, co-workers, the boss, and anyone else they’re close to just what they’re up to.

Doing so helps explain bruises, assorted injuries, and other things that can happen to the body, she said with a laugh.

“One time, a friend got hit in the face, and she had to go into work with a shiner,” Shaver explained. “All you have to do is say ‘roller derby,’ and people get it.”

Saying those two words means much more to those who have discovered this fast-paced activity, who now enjoy a good track record — in more ways than one.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss
Unity First’s Janine Fondon Mixes Diversity and High-tech Savvy

Janine Fondon

Janine Fondon says she’s always managed to stay atop trends in communications.

In the spring of 1946, Irene Morgan, a black woman, boarded a bus in Virginia headed to Baltimore. She was ordered to sit at the back of the bus, as Virginia state law required, but she objected, saying that, since it was an interstate bus, the law did not apply. Morgan was arrested and fined $10.

Attorney Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP took on the case … and won, thus striking down Jim Crow laws in interstate travel. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused a bus driver’s order to move for white riders on a city bus, which initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott and eventually a precedent-setting win in the Supreme Court.

Irene Morgan — whose bravery and tenacity paved the way for Rosa Parks to become an icon of the Civil Rights movement — was Janine Fondon’s aunt.

Fondon is now the successful president and CEO of Unity First Direct Inc., a marketing and public-relations consultancy business, which she founded with her husband, Tom Fondon, in 1996. That business was soon followed by its website counterpart, UnityFirst.com — a national distributor of diversity-related e-news — that grew, as the world grew, with the explosion of workplace computer technology and the burgeoning Internet.

Her ability as a young African-American woman to forge a career in what are mostly male-dominated industries stems from that same bravery and tenacity that her Aunt Irene demonstrated more than 65 years ago. With each new position, all involving communications of some form, Fondon has deepened her public-relations and communications abilities, while picking up emerging technology skills.

Looking back at her family history and career, she noted that, somewhere along the road, she realized she’d been ahead of the curve at almost every point. A persistent focus on the future and an ever-growing skill set that she acquired in various positions — and a particular interest in computers, which she repeatedly referred to as ‘fun’ — ensured that she showed up at the doorstep of each new opportunity with confidence.

For this issue’s focus on women in business, BusinessWest spoke at length with Fondon about her intriguing background. Her keen eye for concrete workplace skills, mixed with an awareness of different cultures and human behavior, has enabled her to launch a small consultancy group that has evolved into a growing, diversity-focused web destination targeting African-Americans and others seeking information of interest to multicultural communities.

 

Right Time, Right Place

Straight out of Colgate University, young New York native Janine Fondon landed her first job with ABC-TV New York in the public relations department as a broadcast analyst. In that position, she would hear viewer responses about programming content, news personalities, and sports analysts, and report back to the network.

“Working for ABC Sports … every time they mentioned things like ‘Hail Mary’ passes, the Catholic Church would not be too happy,” Fondon laughed. But strong miniseries like ‘The Winds of War’ and docudramas with controversial topics were great introductions to a broad variety of perspectives — and watchdog groups that were concerned about how the network was representing women, culture, or some specific issue, Fondon said. WJLA in Washington, D.C. helped expand her work in large metropolitan areas, especially the promo coverage she did in January 1987 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded after takeoff, just one of the milestones that helped her hone her writing skills.

“Those days of writing good stories, getting to the heart of the message … it was really exciting figuring out what the real story was,” she explained. “Those positions made me think how I might pursue something else in the communications field, and honestly, that field has changed every two years since I’ve been involved in it.”

A move to Boston for a PR job with the Unitarian Universalist Assoc. wasn’t a great fit, but with the New England area going though high-tech growth, she was thinking, as always, of the future. She targeted Digital Equipment Corp. and landed in its Corporate Communications department as the associate editor of Digital’s worldwide internal publication, Decworld.

“At Digital, we were communicating internally and with the world, much like we do with Facebook and other forms of communication today, but we were doing it before the mainstream,” Fondon told BusinessWest.

The jump from religion to technology wasn’t an issue. “This was a global company, and I would be able to see what it was like to build this global effort,” she said. Later, with the eventual demise of Digital, her communications and technology skills made her a solid fit in the financial industry which was entering a new age of online sharing of highly confidential financial information.

Working for BankBoston, she was writing not only for the internal print magazine but online vehicles as well — the early development of online communications for the masses. People were using WordPerfect, and everyone still wanted hard copies, and her co-workers were resistant to online bulletin boards and new computer programs. Fondon thought they were great. “I don’t know about you, but IBM Selectric was not my idea of fun, so anything that made it easier, I was all for it,” she laughed.

“Everybody was asking, how are we going to deal with all this change — change in management, change in technology, and the efforts to bring more women into the workplace?” she continued. Meanwhile, she was experiencing major changes in her own life — a husband who came from the world of IBM, and a baby daughter, had her reevaluating her path.

 

Worldwide Change

Fondon can remember people saying that newsrooms weren’t diverse. “I said, ‘if you think newsrooms aren’t diverse, you should enter into corporate communications!’”

Merging her past positions, her skills, and what she saw as a need in all workplaces, Fondon created a small consulting company that she named Unity First Direct. Her husband, Tom, with his IT skills, joined her soon after. She kept busy with magazine writing, brochures, reports, and the like, and within that same year, she and her husband noticed that diversity really was becoming a buzzword, and more venues for community outreach were needed.

So she launched the Unity First newspaper and built a small following, but discovered a growing need for different avenues of diversity awareness. Through e-marketing, outreach, and public relations, Fondon could help clients engage new audiences and build their brands with diverse, emerging markets, including people of all backgrounds, experiences, and geographic locations.

“As we moved from being a print publication to online, and more diversity consulting,” she said, “we saw companies had all the pieces, so we would work to help them connect the dots.”

Eric Gouvin, director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Western New England University, has worked with Fondon on many occasions, having used her as an expert panelist and through co-sponsored events. “We’ve had diversity events that focus on inclusive management,” he said. “Your workforce has its own sets of traits and properties: the way you manage young folks versus old folks, women versus men, people of color versus other races … there are ways of handling all that, not heavy-handed, but sensitively.”

As Fondon described this aspect of her work, “if a company has a project and they want to develop it to meet this 21st-century approach through demographics, content, and tone, then we can help them shape that project.

She explained what she means by ‘tone.’ “Companies that are trying to position themselves in today’s workplace need to reflect diversity inclusion in their internal communications, external communications, community relations, and media approach, and they need people like us to help them sharpen those skills.”

She prefers to not spend energy on the negative, which includes all the things that can happen when a proper approach to tone is ignored — everything from diminishing one’s culture to lawsuits — but to focus on positive outcomes, the companies that make a respectful and educated difference and, thus, enhance their own success.

Today, UnityFirst.com is a growing voice on the Internet and one of the most in-depth resources for connecting with diverse communities and press across the U.S. and beyond. Engaging more than 2 million readers from corporations and boards to cross-cultural business leaders striving for new bottom-line success, the site is a content driver of news, with more than 4,000 national press members, including top mainstream business publications; television, Internet, and radio sources; and press from the African, African-American, Caribbean, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American communities.

In addition, UnityFirst.com delivers content to ForbesDiversity.com, an outgrowth of Forbes.com that offers special sections with comprehensive subject matter from different perspectives.

 

Driven to Success

In addition to a multitude of speaking engagements, Fondon is an adjunct professor at Baypath College and Westfield State University. She and Tom are also targeting young local middle- and high-school students through two projects, the Digital Ambassadors Program and the Common Ground Leadership Forum and Awards.

“It’s our initiative to work with young people around the technology and diversity topics,” said Fondon. “Both programs emphasize the importance of digital learning, inclusion, and leadership.”

Part of her work with students is to keep the dialogue applicable to young people’s interests. Considering the speed at which technology and young people’s interests evolve, Fondon said, “as a teacher, when you think you’re making it relevant and interesting, revisit what that means, because either you got it right, or you didn’t.”

Gouvin agrees, and praises Fondon’s ability to consult with employers. “If you want to be effective, you’ve got to find a way to connect with the people who are working for you,” he said. “It’s not a matter of being PC [politically correct], or doing it because that’s what everyone’s doing; there is sense to it. Janine has always made a case for diversity that is compelling.”

Along with her tenacious and pioneering qualities — like those that spurred her Aunt Irene to such groundbreaking action — Fondon will continue to assist clients with marketing, educate communities about diversity awareness through digital, print, and verbal communication, and help individuals and corporations realize their full potential.

In short, she’s keeping them ahead of the curve.

 

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss
Having a Baby Can — and Often Does — Alter a Woman’s Career Path

Sylvia Callam

Sylvia Callam says she has no regrets about the time she took off from work to spend with her children.


Sylvia Callam had invested an enormous amount of time and energy into her career, so she said she “thought long and hard” about making the decision to have a child.

“I had worked on Wall Street for eight years,” said the Yale graduate and director of research at Gage Wiley Inc., a brokerage-dealer firm. She planned to take two months of maternity leave, then return to work full-time. And although she doesn’t consider herself overly emotional, Callam felt very conflicted when that time approached.

“When you have a baby, your heart changes,” she said. “I had always been the first one to get to work and the last one to leave. But I was definitely surprised and taken aback by how much I wanted to be with my son.”

So she made the decision to put her family first. “For a few years, my career took a backseat. The motherly love I felt was overwhelming, and I needed some time to make sure that going to work was worth it,” said the Hatfield resident, adding that she only worked two days a week.

When her son, Nathan, turned 3, Callam gave birth to her daughter, Alyssa, who was born with myriad medical issues. Thankfully, her boss was understanding, and although she had returned to work full-time, he allowed her to take six months off.

Today, her children are 7 and 4, and despite working part-time for a period of time, she has made remarkable advances in her career. “I was very fortunate that my boss was willing to be patient,” she said.

Still, Callam believes becoming a mother improved her performance. “It is a real success story even though I have always put my children first; I’m more decisive, more confident, and more resilient than I used to be. I had to learn to do the same amount of work in four hours that used to take me eight, and my boss finds my attitude refreshing,” she said. “I am a much better mom because I work and a much better employee because I am a mother. But it’s all a question of whether a woman has a flexible employer.”

Experts agree.

Iris Newalu, director of Executive Education for Women at Smith College, says women can have both high-power careers and children. “But it’s not easy,” she told BusinessWest, adding that many are able to do so only because of flex time or companies that allow them to work from home. “There is no one formula, and everyone has to figure it out for themselves and decide where to set boundaries.”

Fern Selesnick says there was a myth generated years ago that women could have a family and a job and do it all perfectly.

“The standards are unrealistic, but the myth still exists. And even though employers say they support working mothers, it really is not across the board,” said Selesnick, who works as a professional career coach and trainer at Fern Selesnick Consulting.

As a result, having a child or growing one’s family can pose real challenges for working women intent on climbing the career ladder. Although it can be done, the rate of ascension for those who take a significant amount of time off from their jobs depends on a variety of factors.

“There are competing priorities once a woman becomes a mother,” Selesnick said, adding that concerns change while a woman is pregnant, once she has a baby, and when she decides to return to work. “There is an identity shift. Most women realize after the fact that they can’t give 100% to motherhood and 100% to their job. It requires making adjustments, so they need to figure out how they can do both well and take care of themselves without burning out.”

Experts say women should talk to their supervisors about how a leave of absence will affect their job standing before they become pregnant. “Women need to look at a mixture of practical and emotional issues,” Selesnick said, advising them to begin by reading their employee manual to find out how much maternity leave their company allows.

And when a woman does leave, she should tell her manager, “I hope the door will be open for me to come back,” Newalu said.

 

Pregnant Pause

Fern Selesnick

Once a woman has a baby, Fern Selesnick says, she realizes she cannot give 100% to her career and 100% to her role as a mother.

Most women need to work for economic reasons. However, statistics show that it can be financially lucrative to delay motherhood until one has achieved a modicum of success.

A study conducted by Amalia Miller, an associate professor of Economics at the University of Virginia, shows that each year a woman delays having her first child while she is in her 20s and early 30s results in an earnings gain of 9%. This is significant, since other studies show earnings often plateau once a woman becomes a mother.

This results partly from an inability to continue advanced schooling due to the limited number of hours a woman can work due to child-care issues or her desire to be home with her family. Issues mothers discuss with Selesnick include time management, self-esteem, a realistic identity, and career changes or adaptations that must be made, since research confirms that women are still the primary caretakers in families.

Selesnick said the decisions a woman makes and her ability to advance within her company often come down to her supervisor. She cites the cases of clients who were allowed tremendous flexibility. “But some supervisors expect everything to be the same in terms of performance and availability,” she told BusinessWest.

Newalu says women must learn how to negotiate to achieve what they need to be successful as a mother and employee. “Flexibility is key. Once you have a child, you can’t control things; children get sick, have performances at school, and have accidents that require a parent to leave work,” she said.

Attorney Kathy Bernardo was working for the law offices of Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas in Springfield when she had her first child. And although she continued at the firm, a few years later when she found out she was expecting twins, she made the decision to work part-time.

“I made a conscious decision to get myself off the partnership track — I thought it would be more than I could handle,” she explained. “I knew I couldn’t commit 100% to my firm and my family, and I wanted to be fair to everyone as well as myself.”

When she returned full-time, it took her a year before she re-established her standing within the practice. “It wasn’t easy because I had to prove to them and to myself that I could handle it, and wanted them to have wonderful data to assess,” she said.

Bernardo achieved her goal of becoming a partner, but it took her 10 years instead of seven. “But I got where I wanted to be without sacrificing my family and was actually able to enjoy my children and be there for them in those important early years; babies demand most of your time,” she said.

Today, her children are teenagers, and she has no regrets about her decisions.

“Sometimes people feel that, if they don’t proceed as planned, they will lose their opportunity,” she said. “But I was fortunate to be somewhere where I could have that dialogue with my employer.”

Experts agree that a woman should have a frank discussion with her supervisor, manager, or someone in the company’s human-resources department before she leaves her job. They advise women to maintain relationships at work while on extended maternity leave, which has personal and professional benefits.

“It’s important for a woman’s self-esteem and confidence to feel that she still has a hand in her career and her work identity isn’t gone,” Selesnick said.

Other safeguards can help her to remain marketable. Selesnick recommends working part-time or doing volunteer work in an area that correlates to one’s career so there is not a large gap in a résumé.

Women also have a responsibility to stay current in their fields, Newalu said, adding it is especially important for those who work in information technology or other areas where change occurs rapidly.

 

Fair Exchange

Tricia Parolo’s career began in 1997, when she became an intern at MassMutual. In 2000, she achieved full-time status and held a variety of positions within the company until 2007, when she left to become a full-time mother.

“My husband and I had planned for it for two years; I took a leap of faith because I had no idea what to expect and what it meant to be a stay-at-home mom,” she said, adding that she had her second daughter shortly afterwards and soon discovered that working in an office seemed easier and less stressful than raising babies.

“I found it was really, really hard being at home,” Parolo said, adding that other people perceived her differently once she lost her professional identity.

She retained the part-time retail job she’d had while she was at MassMutual, but sometimes felt jealous of her husband when he left for work. “I was constantly torn about my decision.”

In 2010, a co-worker who had risen to a management position contacted her and asked if she wanted to work 20 hours a week. Parolo’s former colleague allowed her to work at home from 7 p.m. to midnight, although she did have to go into the office for four hours one day a week.

The following year, when her youngest daughter was 2, Parolo returned full-time and found she had to prove herself all over again. “I worked really, really hard to make up the gap,” she said.

But she has no regrets. “I had the best of both worlds. I was able to stay home with my two little babies and pick up where I left off,” she told BusinessWest.

Newalu says the top companies in the country are willing to invest in a woman’s career and make accommodations if she has a good track record, has been an excellent employee, and has established good relationships. “Talent is very expensive, and companies do not want to keep training new people; they want good employees back.”

However, as Parolo and Bernardo discovered, no one should expect to take up to a year off without consequences.

“It is unrealistic to think that you can slip right back into the position you had — a woman will probably be put where she is needed,” Newalu said. “The situation is the same for anyone who takes time off; you lose seniority, and the people who have stayed on the job have more understanding of the current situation.”

Women who cannot return to their previous position or are unhappy about what they are offered may want to seek employment at another company. However, when they do return to work — whether it is with their previous employer or a new one — they should know what they need and be willing to talk about these needs, even though it may be uncomfortable.

“Research shows that women don’t tend to be good negotiators. It’s a learned skill,” Newalu said, explaining that they can take a course, read books on the subject, or get a coach to teach them how to leverage their talent.

“Early in my own career, I did what I was told, but as I got more experienced, I learned to ask for what I needed,” she said. “You have to be willing to step outside your comfort zone. If you ask for what you need in the right way, you often get it. It can’t hurt to ask, and if you don’t have an open-door situation, you have to define how you will re-enter the workforce.”

Prior to becoming a mother, Selesnick held positions in management where she was required to be available at all times. She took a few years off when she had her daughter, but continued her part-time job as a writer. “It was a cut in income, but it allowed me to be the mother I wanted to be,” she said. “If I had taken a corporate management position, I couldn’t have been a mother in the way I wanted.”

When she did return to full-time work, she chose a much easier position at a nonprofit agency with a set schedule that didn’t include night or weekend hours. “Plus, my boss let me bring my daughter to work if it was necessary. Life was much simpler.”

 

Back to Business

As children grow, women often find that juggling roles becomes easier. “Women need to know that the demands of motherhood decrease and the time will come when you have complete flexibility again,” Selesnick said.

In fact, taking time off can be simply viewed as a detour on a career path.

“I am so glad that I persevered,” Callam said, “even in the lowest of times.”

Sections Women in Businesss
WBOA Helps Area Business Owners Design a Plan for Success

Eileen Jerome, left, and Susan Kelley

Eileen Jerome, left, and Susan Kelley are proud of the caliber of educational programs that the WBOA offers area women in business.

‘Education’ and ‘inspiration.’

Those were the two words Susan Kelley summoned when asked what she gains through her participation in the Women Business Owners Alliance of Western Mass. (WBOA), a carefully chosen name that speaks volumes about what the organization is all about.

It truly is an alliance, said Kelley, owner of Kelley Tax Services in Westfield and current vice president of the WBOA board of directors. Elaborating, she said the group is comprised of mostly small-business owners who network, sometimes do business with one another, and raise money together to support nonprofit organizations that benefit women and girls. But mostly they learn from experts in the field and especially from each other, and come away empowered by the stories of perseverance that are told at the group’s monthly meetings.

“It is inspiring to learn from others who can share their work experiences,” said Eileen Jerome, current board president and owner of Jerome’s Party Plus/Taylor Rental in Westfield, who joined the group five years ago and has inspired others with her success.

This is what Renate Oliver had in mind when she started the organization in 1982, said Jerome, adding that Oliver will be one of many speakers at an elaborate 30th Anniversary Gala to be staged June 21 at Chez Josef. The event will honor a number of women for their contributions to the organization and their success in business, but mostly, the gala will be a celebration of how the WBOA has grown and evolved over the past three decades.

Indeed, the calendar is now filled with everything from a highly successfully fall speaker series appropriately named Kaleidescope to a raucous annual Women’s Night of Comedy, which is a fund-raiser for area nonprofits. Meanwhile, the group continues to meet monthly and thus carry out its primary mission: to empower women entrepreneurs to be all that they can be.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, BusinessWest looks at how that mission is carried out, and, in the course of doing so, explains why there will be much to celebrate at the upcoming gala.

 

Meeting of the Minds

Christine Parizo will be one of those honored on June 21.

Freda Brown

Freda Brown will be honored as 2012 Business Woman of the Year at the WBOA 30th Anniversary Gala.

A freelance copywriter who was already busy enough being a mother of two children with her own business, Christine Parizo Communications, she joined the Women WBOA because she saw it as an opportunity to grow professionally, learn from others in situations similar to hers, and become involved in the community.

From the start, she liked the group, and it liked her — enough to ask her to fill an open seat on the board, one involving communications and public relations, talents she specializes in. “I guess that if you want something done, ask a busy person,” said Parizo, who will be honored as the 2012 Outstanding New Member at the gala.

In many ways, her story is typical of those who become part of the organization — small-business owners who join to network and also tap into the collective wisdom in the room at the monthly breakfast meetings.

Jerome told BusinessWest she wasn’t quite sure what to expect when she attended her first meeting at the behest of a friend who thought she would fit in. “I walked into a room full of strange women,” she recalled, meaning people she had never met. Soon, they weren’t strangers, and Jerome eventually settled into a leadership role that put her on the path to becoming president.

She said there are currently about 80 members representing a number of professions and business sectors. The current roster includes attorneys, business coaches, financial planners, jewelry designers, and realtors, among others. Each has a different business story to tell, but there are common denominators: they own small businesses that want to grow, face myriad challenges as they go about that assignment, and often wear many, if not all, of the hats in their organization.

Such is the case with Kelley, a sole proprietor who came from the corporate world where literally everything was at her fingertips, and those little bothersome things like marketing, advertising, and ordering office needs were all done by other people. When she moved back to the area five years ago and started a new business on her own, it was a whole different world.

“I really needed to get out and meet other business owners, and having come from such a large company, it was very limiting being on my own,” she explained. “At WBOA, I felt welcomed; the speakers were very inspirational.”

Jerome told BusinessWest that WBOA is a very hospitable group, and every effort is made to welcome a new person, find them a place to sit, and let them know the routine immediately.

“We are a non-competitive group; we can have two women from the same type of business, and they support each other,” she said, adding that the goal isn’t for everybody to use each other as a prospect, but to grow each other’s business through support, education, and new relationships.

 

Sharing and Caring

Jerome told BusinessWest that there are many benefits to be derived from WBOA’s $95 annual membership fee. These include everything from the many kinds of learning opportunities to the opportunity to qualify for a low-interest business loan from the organization.

Indeed, financial assistance is available for those who qualify through the Cheryl Reed Memorial Loan Fund, which was established in 1991 in memory of Cheryl Reed, who owned Cheryl Reed Travel in East Longmeadow and was a founding member of WBOA. The funds can be used to get a business started or take it to the next level, said Jerome, adding that the program represents just one of the ways WBOA has evolved over the years.

Another is through refinement of the many educational components of the group’s mission, starting with the programs at the regular monthly breakfast meetings.

Topics are chosen based on both emerging trends in business and the common needs of the members, said Jerome, adding that the goal with every program is to give the assembled women information and insight that they can take back to their businesses and apply immediately.

She recalled one session in particular that featured a human-resources professional who described recent research showing that women are far less likely to ask for help, money, new opportunities, and pretty much anything to do with business. Her message was that the true secret to personal and professional success is to ask and ask often, and she punctuated her case by highlighting stories of others’ success.

All of the monthly series events are morning sessions, Jerome said, but in the fall of 2013, WBOA will offer five evening events for those members who can’t attend morning events due to child care or other work issues.

Meanwhile, the popular Kaleidoscope Fall Speaker Series, which specifically showcases members of the WBOA, will resume in September. “Part of our mission is to showcase our members because they have great experience and examples that we can all learn from,” said Jerome. “We really have a variety of talent in our members.”

For example, this past fall’s series, which was sponsored by Bay Path College, offered six WBOA members the opportunity to share their expertise about business, marketing, finance, and work/life balance. The members presented two at a time over a three-week period.

The first week’s workshop covered the nuances of finding a business niche and getting finances in order; week two focused on the broad topic of time management and how to improve it. The final week allowed the speakers to help answer some questions that are pretty much on the tongues of women business owners everywhere, such as, how does one move a customer from ‘I’m interested’ to ‘here’s my credit card’?

Another example of the group’s progression and ongoing evolution is the annual Women’s Night of Comedy, which draws a sellout crowd and raises money for three local nonprofit organizations that help women and girls in various aspects of life. Last March’s event featured four comediennes, including one of the most sought-after personalities on the national comedy scene, Patty Ross, and raised funds for Rick’s Place, Safe Passage, and Dress for Success.

Kelley is quick to point out that the Women’s Night of Comedy effort is a rocking and rolling night of kinship and networking, but it’s no laughing matter. Just a few years ago, the organization was able to give $250 to each nonprofit.  Two years ago, the amount escalated to $3,000 per organization, and this past year was raised again to $3,500 for each.

“More people have heard of it and are coming back, bringing their friends,” she explained, adding that the event is feeding off its own success, bringing more ticket sales, raffle prizes, and, most importantly, sponsorship money. “It’s awesome to see that it’s really a great night and, best of all, it’s growing.”

 

Fabric of Success

There is a full agenda for the upcoming 30th-anniversary celebration, said Jerome, starting with awards to members such as Parizo and Freda Brown, the organization’s treasurer, who will be named Woman of the Year.

The WBOA will also spotlight the Pioneer Valley’s Top Women in Business, chosen by the group based on community involvement, business growth, mentoring, volunteering, and innovation, and Oliver will deliver her highly anticipated address.

But overall, the night will be a celebration of 30 years of growth, evolution, and continued refinement of those qualities on which the organization was founded: education and inspiration.

 

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss
Understand Your Obligations for Maternity and Paternity Leave

Kevin V. Maltby

Kevin V. Maltby

At any given time, a female employee may approach you and share the wonderful news that she is pregnant. Similarly, a male employee may approach you with the news that he is going to be a father.
While such news is usually well-received, it also serves as notice that you, as the employer, should begin making preparations for your employee’s maternity or paternity leave. You must be mindful of both state and federal law.

The Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act
Under state law, the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act (MMLA) applies to all businesses that employ six or more employees. As written by the state Legislature, the MMLA is gender-specific to females, and provides eight weeks of unpaid leave to full-time female employees for purposes of giving birth, adopting a child under the age of 18, or adopting a child under the age of 23 who is mentally or physically disabled.
The MMLA requires the employee to give her employer at least two weeks notice of her anticipated date of departure and intention to return. It should be noted that an employer cannot refuse to grant MMLA leave on the grounds that doing so would constitute a hardship.
The Mass. Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) is the state’s chief civil-rights agency and is empowered with enforcing and overseeing the MMLA. As the chief enforcement agency, the MCAD has taken the position that the MMLA should be applied equally to both men and women despite it being gender-specific. In doing so, the MCAD effectively converted the MMLA to a paternity-leave act so that it would apply equally to men and women. Therefore, employers should treat both male and female employees equally under the MMLA when reviewing guidelines and leave requirements.
In a recent case involving a pregnant employee, the MCAD awarded an employee almost $25,000 in damages after finding that the employer had taken adverse employment action against the employee based on her pregnant status. In Sally Scaife v. Florence Pizza Factory, the MCAD found that, despite the employee’s positive work-performance reviews, the employer cut her hours upon learning that the employee was pregnant. The MCAD found that, as her pregnancy started to show, her boss reduced her work, stating, “it was bad for her and bad for the business” if she mopped or lifted. When she contested, her boss grew frustrated and reduced her hours, and finally told her “not to come in for the next shift because … she was too big.”
In another recent case involving the MMLA, the MCAD awarded an employee $111,300 in back pay and $35,000 in emotional-distress damages. In Patricia D. Kane v. College Central Network, the employee mostly worked from home, as one of 10 employees in a national company. In April 2000, she started working full-time as a regional manager, and she became pregnant in July 2001. She requested maternity leave, and was told that she “could take four weeks maternity leave and receive compensation equal to one week’s salary.” She made use of that time, and also took five sick days. In time, she became pregnant again, and was told that she “could take no more than four weeks of maternity leave and could not use any sick time toward her maternity leave.” The company president started to divert work from her and to pressure her to return as soon as possible.
Before she delivered her second child, she requested a full eight-week unpaid leave and a transition period of three days a week thereafter. She gave birth on Oct. 7, 2003, and started her leave. During that time, her boss took actions to remove her from the company, including stopping the lease payments on her car, shutting off her work cell phone, and replacing her name in the newsletter.
When she tried to come back to work, she found she was locked out of the intranet and e-mail. Her boss later informed her that her regional office was being closed and she was being laid off. Based on the employer’s conduct, the MCAD awarded the employee back pay and emotional-distress damages.

The Family Medical Leave Act
Under federal law, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) applies to businesses that employ more than 50 employees. The FMLA provides for 12 weeks of leave to an employee, regardless of the gender, for the birth and care of a newborn child or care for a newly adopted or foster child, or leave for a serious illness.
Leave can either be for paternity, maternity, or specified personal health reasons, depending on the needs of the employee. Under the FMLA, employees are eligible for FMLA benefits if they have worked for their employer for at least 12 months and at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months immediately preceding the leave, and they work within 75 miles of the location of the business.

A Case for Both MMLA and FMLA
As you can see in the chart above, some of the parameters of MMLA and FMLA seem contradictory. In addition, there are some circumstances where an employee may be entitled to 20 weeks of leave. These circumstances include a pregnant employee who has experienced complications and is on bed rest. During this pre-birth period, the employee can make use of her FMLA leave because she is experiencing a serious illness. Once the employee gives birth, she may then use her MMLA, because it applies only for the purpose of giving birth. Under these circumstances, the employer must comply with both FMLA and MMLA.
If you are unsure whether MMLA, FMLA, or both apply to your employee’s circumstance, and given the possibility of a discrimination claim, you should be sure to consult with a lawyer who concentrates their practice in employment law to be sure that you are in compliance with the law.

Kevin V. Maltby is an associate with Bacon Wilson, P.C. and a former prosecutor for the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office. He was named by SuperLawyers as a Rising Star from 2009 to 2011 in the field of employment and labor law, has extensive jury-trial and courtroom experience, and is an adjunct faculty member in the Legal Studies department at Bay Path College; (413) 781-0560; baconwilson.com/attorneys/maltby; bwlaw.blogs.com/employment_law_bits