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Market Shift

jane-albert-7-of-8From her early days in marketing, Jane Albert had a goal — to work in the field of healthcare, and specifically for Baystate Health, the region’s largest health system. To achieve that goal, and eventually be part of the organization’s senior leadership, she was willing to take risks, welcome new opportunities as they arose, and continually make connections — all the while never losing sight of who her customers are and how to most effectively meet their needs.

When she was 8 years old, Jane Albert was the only one of her friends allowed to ride her bike from her Springfield neighborhood all the way to City Line Pharmacy in East Longmeadow. She immediately saw the money-making possibilities.

“I would buy candy there and set up a table on my front lawn to sell candy to all the kids in my neighborhood, and I’d mark the candy up,” she said. “I evaluated the demand for certain types of candy; at first, I bought what I liked, but then I saw what they were buying.”

When someone would complain about the prices, she’d note they could easily ride to the pharmacy and buy their own. Except that they couldn’t.

What she didn’t realize at the time, she said, was that she was exercising the four ‘Ps’ of marketing that students of the subject learn in college: product, price, place, and promotion. “The candy was the price, and the price was the markup based on the demand. The place was local — my front yard — and promotion was word of mouth; kids rode their bikes around and said, ‘Jane’s selling candy.’”

While Albert didn’t know at the time that marketing and business development would become her career and driving passion, it’s easy now to look back and recognize an early aptitude for it — and the connecting threads between candy and healthcare as she settles into her latest role at Baystate Health, as senior vice president of Marketing, Communications & External Relations.

“It all goes back to that entrepreneurial spirit — even in healthcare, what do people want, and how do we deliver that and make them happy? And how do you determine what people want, or give them something they can’t get somewhere else?”

Her marketing career started in the 1990s with a moment of ‘bartering’ with Braman Chemical owner Jerry Lazarus, who was in her home on a pest-control call. “I shared ideas with him on how he could improve his marketing outreach. He was so taken with the ideas, he didn’t charge me. I thought, ‘oh, this is really valuable. I have good things to offer that I could package.’”

With a baby at the time, and a part-time teaching gig at what was then known as Western New England College, she launched a solo venture as a marketing consultant — something she could do with her skills and still be home with her family at night.

During that time, Albert developed a footprint across the Northeast and partnered with marketing and research firms and ad agencies to increase the value of what they brought clients. Some were more receptive that others — one client didn’t think she brought as much value working from home than someone with a “fancy office.”

“I said he was getting me 24/7 and wasn’t paying for overhead — just paying for brainpower,” she recalled. He challenged her by calling her at 6:45 one evening, when he figured she’d be cooking dinner. She took the call with one hand while stirring food on the stovetop with the other.

I’m always looking to the future and what’s next — I’m a visionary planner. And I knew my next step was not going to be a college president. So I asked, what’s next for me?”

Meanwhile, she was proving her value in other ways as well. While teaching at WNEC, she developed a plan to create a marketing department. Later, “the president called and said, ‘we like what you did. Will you be our first director of marketing?” She took that job, and when current President Anthony Caprio came on board, he promoted Albert to vice president of Advancement and Marketing.

She liked that job, though she missed the classroom culture, that moment of seeing the lights go on for a student who made a connection between the textbook and real life. “But I was able to promote a good school, and that was gratifying as well.”

But it would not be her final career stop. Far from it.

“I’m always looking to the future and what’s next — I’m a visionary planner,” she told BusinessWest. “And I knew my next step was not going to be a college president. So I asked, what’s next for me?”

The answer, she decided, was in healthcare.

“I was born at Baystate and raised in Springfield, and I wasn’t going to relocate anywhere,” Albert said. “I had heard a lot about Baystate’s leadership under [then-President] Mike Daly, and that’s where I had my sights set. You can have so much impact on people in healthcare, and I saw the impact Baystate had on so many people, so I wanted to work there and get involved in healthcare.”

But no opportunities in her field of marketing were available right away, so, as a stepping stone, she went to work for Veritech, a 25-person multi-media company that specialized in healthcare, heading up its business-development arm — a move that baffled friends and family who wondered why she would shed the prestige of being a college’s vice president for something seemingly much less glamorous.

But she had a plan.

“The core of their business was healthcare education,” she explained. “The founder was really a man ahead of his time. He created digital patient-education programs online, but it was too soon; there was no payment model for it. But I loved his company. My thought was that I’d take over his company when he retired, or use that as a launchpad to get to Baystate.”

Two years later, she got a call from the head of Baystate’s Marketing department — a job opportunity had opened up, with the health system looking to install a manager of Medical Practices Marketing. Again, friends wondered whether it had been worth leaving her vice presidency at WNEC to wind up in a managerial role in a massive health system.

“I did it because, looking at the long term, I wanted to be here at Baystate,” she said. “It was a significantly different job, obviously, compared to Western New England, but I said, ‘I’m in it for the long haul, and I’m going to go for it and do the best I can.’”

Fifteen years later, she’s sure that was the right decision.

Up the Ladder

When preparing to take a photo for this article, Albert joked that BusinessWest should take one of all her Baystate business cards. Indeed, it’s an impressive collection.

For instance, Baystate’s physician practices, the focus of her first stop, is an important part of the network, today boasting more than 80 primary- and specialty-care doctors. “My job was to promote the physicians and the practices to the general community, so they would know what we had to offer.”

During her time in that role, Albert presented the first marketing plan to integrate two legacy medical groups to become one organization, known today as Baystate Medical Practices.

But much of the day-to-day work was about building bridges between the doctors and their patients, and between the practices and their communities, she added. “That’s the most important piece, the relationships. That’s what it’s all about. When doctors have good relationships with patients, the patients share that with others. When the doctors have good relationships with other doctors, they refer to one another.”

She was later appointed manager of Corporate Marketing, overseeing Baystate Health’s marketing efforts, loyalty programs, and events, followed by a stint as director of Public Affairs & Internal Communications. She then returned to Baystate Medical Practices, successfully launching the organization’s first physician-referral office, working under the leadership of Mark Keroack, who later became president of Baystate Health.

“That office was really about developing relationships between Baystate doctors and community physicians, and paving a pathway for better access to each other, and for patients to get appointments,” she explained. “I knew so much about Baystate that moving into this operations role was really exciting. It was a place I could grow and have an impact.”

But not long after, a search committee embarked on a nine-month search for a key dual role in the system: vice president of Philanthropy for Baystate Health and executive director of the Baystate Health Foundation. They failed to identify the ideal candidate, however, and turned inward, to someone with a deep understanding of the system’s needs and some experience in fund-raising. That’s right — it was time for Albert to order a new set of business cards.

Among her accomplishments in that role, she led a transformation of the foundation to align philanthropic support with a new strategic plan, and oversaw the completion of a $5 million capital campaign for the new surgical center at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield.

Four years later, though, it was time for another move, this time into the health system’s senior leadership team. As a member of Keroack’s cabinet, she now oversees the functions of marketing and digital strategy, government and public relations, community relations and public health, communications, and philanthropy.

That’s … quite a long list.

And it’s not a job performed in the quiet of her office; with a wry smile, she held up that day’s schedule, an uninterrupted block of meetings with different departments — squeezing in BusinessWest among them — and made it clear most days are like that. But she relishes her raft of new responsibilities.

“There’s been a lot of change over the last few years,” Albert said, referring to both her role and the evolving shape of healthcare as well. “But change brings opportunity. Healthcare is changing every single day, and so is our environment, so we have to be able to change, to meet the needs of our patients, families, donors, and legislators.”

The biggest challenge in healthcare is government changes and reimbursements. You’re dealing with an industry where more than half the revenues are provided by the government. There’s continual change, and that makes it difficult.”

Indeed, that latter group is often the most demanding.

“The biggest challenge in healthcare is government changes and reimbursements. You’re dealing with an industry where more than half the revenues are provided by the government. There’s continual change, and that makes it difficult.”

In addition, Baystate serves a population with high levels of poverty, and Medicaid reimburses only 75% of costs, on average. “We’re losing 25 cents on the dollar for every Medicaid patient. And when you have a charitable mission to take care of everybody — no one gets turned away — it becomes challenging to afford all that we need to do.”

Improving the Prognosis

‘All that’ extends well beyond everyday care, of course, including attracting top talent, investing in innovative technology, providing the teaching resources of an academic medical center, and, now, partnering with UMass Medical School on a Springfield branch.

“That’s why philanthropy is so important,” she added, particularly at a time when hospitals are expected to keep communities healthy, improve the patient experience, and reduce costs — the so-called ‘triple aim.’

“Healthcare used to be based on, the more you did, the more you got paid,” she said. “You’d send a patient for six tests, an X-ray, and three specialists. Now, healthcare is reimbursed based on how healthy you keep patients.”

And preferably not in hospitals. Take asthma, for instance, a particularly pervasive issue in the Pioneer Valley. If a child’s asthma is not controlled and he or she winds up in the hospital, it results in poor school performance, missed work for the parents, and higher costs for the health system — a vicious cycle. The better option? Preventive efforts to keep the child healthy at home.

“Where do you find a business that tries to keep you away from that business, and that’s a success?” Albert asked. “But that’s where we are. Our goal is population health and doing all we can do to keep people healthy. We look at social determinants of health — access to food, incidence of diabetes and obesity, which can lead to heart disease … all those things drive the cost of health way up. It’s a much better picture when people are healthy, and that’s what we want.”

Achieving that goal requires everyone in the health system to align behind a single mission, and that requires a culture change, she explained, from the doctors performing cutting-edge surgery to maintenance staff raking leaves and improving the aesthetic appeal of a building that few customers are really happy about entering.

“There aren’t a lot of businesses where people don’t want to come to your business, so we want to make it as pleasant an experience as possible,” she said. “That is our focus. The world is changing, so we need to understand what the patient wants and how we can best deliver it.”

The bottom line, Albert said, is trying to make a difference and make the world a better place, as cliché as that might sound.

“I’m excited about where I am in this role,” she said, reflecting simultaneously on all the stops along the way. “People can see you can go from a manager up the line. An organization of this size provides those opportunities.”

It’s certainly a long way — figuratively, anyway — from just over the border in East Longmeadow, where an 8-year-old with a knack for marketing first began figuring out what her customers wanted and how to deliver the goods.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss

Dogged Determination

Good Dog Spot Managing Director Elizabeth Staples

Good Dog Spot Managing Director Elizabeth Staples

Elizabeth Staples turned a life-long love of dogs into one of the region’s most notable pet-friendly success stories, the Good Dog Spot. From one small location to two large spaces, 25 employees, and more than 2,000 customers, Staples has built her growing daycare and grooming business according to one driving philosophy: each furry client is someone’s family member, and deserves more — much more — than a hard floor and a cage.

Elizabeth Staples always wanted to be around dogs. Fortunately for her, some early disappointment gave way to an abundance of canines in her life — and a successful second career.

“When I was younger, I wanted a dog, and my mom said no,” she told BusinessWest. “But when I was old enough to get a job, I started working at a local kennel, a family-run place. I liked it — they were able to set their schedule around their family, kids, whatever they had going on.”

That was an important lesson, one she would one day apply to her own venture, the Good Dog Spot, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in Chicopee this year, as well as the first anniversary of its second location in Northampton.

That part of her story begins in 2007, when Staples, who worked for MassMutual at the time, couldn’t shake her love for animals, and a growing desire to craft a career around them.

As a board member with the national Pet Care Services Assoc., she noticed doggie day cares were becoming more popular, many launched by people in the corporate world who had built some savings and decided they’d rather play with dogs all day. But the centers she saw springing up regionally left her cold. She saw an opportunity to do better.

“On the East Coast, I was seeing chain-link kennels, warehouse kennels … just places for the dog to stay until their owners came back,” she said. “But out west, in California and Texas, you were seeing cage-free dogs playing with each other. It seemed like a more labor-intensive thing, but the dogs enjoyed themselves more. I thought that just made sense.”

So she launched the Good Dog Spot in Chicopee in 2007, envisioning a place where canines can mingle and have fun during the day, a model, she said, that more accurately reflects the pet-owner relationship when the pet and owner can’t be together.

She maxed out a credit card and convinced a bank to give her a small loan, which she used to open the business in a small space on Old James St. in Chicopee, which she quickly outgrew by 2009, moving to a warehouse about a mile away on North Chicopee Street. “Whatever we were doing was working, because we grew right away.”

Groomer Kathy Jarvis works on a patient customer at the Northampton site.

Groomer Kathy Jarvis works on a patient customer at the Northampton site.

What she was doing, in fact, became one of the region’s more successful pet-related ventures, one that continues to expand its customer base and introduce more dogs to a daycare experience that involves more than cold floors and chain-link fences.

Groomed for Success

At first, the Good Dog Spot focused on day care and grooming, the latter service overseen by Lisa Peloquin, Staples’ business partner and senior groomer.

“Shortly after that, people started asking us about overnight care, so we put in some overnight suites — crates we built into the walls,” Staples said. The area was designed with a homey feel, but the sleepover dogs are typically plenty tired after a day at the Good Dog Spot.

That’s because play and socialization are critical elements of the business model. First-time visitors begin with a day-long evaluation to make sure they get along with the other dogs.

“One of the things we decided early on was to really get to know the dogs,” she said, explaining that dogs that have interaction issues are kept separate from their fellow day campers (but still given plenty of human interaction), while the more social dogs are grouped by age, size, and play style, so senior dogs, for example, aren’t overwhelmed by puppies and high-energy dogs.

“They play all morning, and around 11 or so, we take them in their groups outside for outdoor play time and potty break,” Staples explained. “Then it’s back in to settle down and take naps.” Naptime is roughly from noon to 2, just like a child would at a daycare. “When they’re active and they go, go, go all day long, they can get cranky.”

The staff-to-dog ratio is never less than one per 10 to 15 dogs, so the handlers can give individual attention as needed, she added.

“Every dog-owner relationship is different. There’s so many reasons they might be using daycare. Maybe the dog is destructive at home, and they can’t go home during the day and let the dog out of the crate. Or maybe we can help reinforce basic potty training.”

Even the grooming customers, who tend to schedule regular visits every six to eight weeks, on average, can benefit from professional expertise, she went on. “Maybe the dog’s fur is really matted because the owner doesn’t know how to brush properly. We can talk with them, and a lightbulb goes off, and they get it.”

Whatever the issue — and often there’s no issue at all except a desire to give their pets some socialization during the long daytime hours — Staples said her goal is to strengthen the dog-owner relationship. “I love being able to make a difference. If the dog has issues at home, we work to make the relationship better, and make the bond between the owner and dog stronger.”

They play all morning, and around 11 or so, we take them in their groups outside for outdoor play time and potty break. Then it’s back in to settle down and take naps. When they’re active and they go, go, go all day long, they can get cranky.”

She makes that promise to well over 2,000 clients with the help of 25 employees. Besides Staples and Peloquin, the Good Dog Spot’s leadership team includes Corey Staples (Elizabeth’s husband), director of operations; Jacob McCarty, office manager; Shannon O’Connell, daycare manager; and Jennifer Rueli, Northampton facilities manager.

“I knew I didn’t want the business to rely solely on me, so we’d be functionally useless unless I was in the building,” said Staples, who, like the kennel she worked for as a teenager, aims to provide work-life flexibility for her employees, just as her services offer the same flexibility to clients.

New Leash on Life

The Chicopee site, which initially offered almost 5,000 square feet of space, has since expanded twice to double that size — while adding amenities like a small retail shop and the Bark Bus shuttle service — but that still wasn’t enough room.

“We knew we were nearing capacity in our Chicopee location,” Staples said. Northampton made sense as a second site, but she was only feeling out the area, not intending to commit, when her real-estate agent found a King Street building that wound up working perfectly — a wide-open, rectangular structure that she would be able to customize into a flow that would meet the Good Dog Spot’s needs.

That location was also successful right from the start, buoyed by a number of Chicopee clients who switched over because Northampton was more convenient for them, and also by the company’s growing reputation, paired with an expanded advertising and marketing presence.

“The Northampton community was so welcoming as a whole,” she said. “The city was easy to work with, and it’s such a dog-loving community. I really feel fortunate to be where we are.”

dogspot2

Staples’ commitment to pet welfare extends to her training — and that of her staff — in pet first aid and CPR through the American Red Cross. She has also donated time and resources to Dakin Humane Society, Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Control & Adoption Center, and Rainbow Rescues, and donated pet oxygen masks to local fire stations.

But her most lasting contribution to pet welfare may be her embrace of a model of doggie daycare that treats dogs like family — the way most pet owners today treat them.

“We definitely think we see friendships form between our daycare dogs,” she wrote recently on the Good Dog Spot blog. “Many dogs come on certain days of the week and regularly see the same dogs every time they come. We notice that dogs will be excited to see certain other dogs, and play together every time they come. The dogs here will even form cliques with each other, with a whole group of dogs playing together and becoming friends.”

New clients are sometimes bemused by the report cards and even art projects that get sent home with their furry friends each day, but they quickly understand Staples’ view of dogs as furry kids, and worthy of being treated as such.

“We want to support pet people in our community,” she told BusinessWest. “People around here are so passionate about their dogs, and we’re there to help in whatever way we can.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss

‘The Art of Risk’

Kathy Anderson

Kathy Anderson says risk isn’t bad, “it’s just scary sometimes.”

It was more than a decade ago now, but Kathy Anderson can clearly remember the many emotions that accompanied her decision to seek the role of director of the Holyoke Office of Planning and Development.

They included doubt — there was some of that, and on many levels — as well as uncertainty and perhaps a bit of fear as well. But there was also confidence and anticipation about what she could do in this role and what it would mean for her career.

Anderson recalls that what she needed — and what she got from her friend, fellow Holyoker and mentor of sorts, Joan Kagan, director of Square One — was some inspiration in the form of thoughtful advice on how to approach and manage this episode in risk taking, as well as some needed encouragement and reassurance that she was certainly well-equipped to succeed in that big job.

“That was a male-dominated field, and people were questioning whether I could even do that job,” Anderson recalled. “And she (Kagan) said, ‘Kathy you can do this; you’re the conductor in an orchestra. The conductor doesn’t need to know how to perform all the pieces … they just need to know how to conduct the orchestra, and that’s what you’re doing.’”

It’s because Anderson has never forgotten those words, or how important they were to her, that she has enthusiastically partnered with colleague Maureen Belliveau, director of the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce, to launch a new women’s leadership event and make the broad subject of risk the focus of the inaugural program, slated for Friday, Sept. 22 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke.

Make that “Women & The Art of Risk.” That’s the formal title of the event and a template to be followed moving forward, said Belliveau, adding that ‘Women & The Art of ….’ will become a brand, of sorts, with the noun to change with the year.

And risk, or the process of assessing, assuming, and managing it, is truly an art, she went on, adding that women encounter risk on many levels and at many stages in their life — in their careers, in their family life, and in the constant struggle to balance those two forces.

To help with this assignment, the two chambers have put together this leadership conference, one that will feature workshops, discussions, and career-development opportunities. Some of the day’s programming has fallen into place, but in many ways, the canvas still needs to be filled in, said Anderson, adding that a big component still taking shape is the series of inspirational stories of risk-taking that organizers plan to present.

They’re calling them, appropriately enough, ‘stories of risk,’ and the chambers invited women to submit entries (via 500-word essays or two-minute videos) for the right to tell their story.

A number of entries have been received, said Anderson, and they are currently being reviewed, with the winners to be announced in the weeks to come.

Whatever stories are chosen, they are certain to generate discussion and debate, while also inspiring those in the audience, which is what organizers had in mind when they blueprinted this program.

Climate Change

As she talked about how and especially why the women’s leadership conference came about, Belliveau began by turning the clock back a few decades to when she was starting her career.

Desiring to be careful with her words and not generalize, she nonetheless strongly implied that back then … well, women were, by and large, less willing (and perhaps less able) to be of assistance to other women, especially when it came to career ladder climbing, mentoring, and more.

“We were trying to enter the male-dominated workforce, and because it was so competitive, women were not necessarily jumping up to help one another,” she recalled. “But now I feel the environment has changed; the energy has shifted, and now is the time when we can come together in a really strong way and support each other.”

So, in many ways, this new women’s leadership conference is a celebration of this phenomenon and an attempt to take full advantage of it, for the betterment of women across the region.

This greatly improved climate when it comes to women helping and mentoring other women was coupled with a desire by the leadership at both chambers to create programming that went beyond traditional networking and beyond the prototypical legislative roundtable.

“Kathy has been wanting to do a conference-type event for women for some time now, and I’ve wanted to do something on inspirational leadership,” said Belliveau, noting that the two chambers have collaborated to present an event involving area legislators each spring for several years now. “We started talking in January about what we were going to do this year, and things just kind of snowballed.”

Maureen Belliveau says organizers of the September women’s conference are working hard to avoid falling into the clichés involving the subject of women and risk.

Maureen Belliveau says organizers of the September women’s conference are working hard to avoid falling into the clichés involving the subject of women and risk.

Anderson agreed, and noted that, in some ways, the collaborative relationship between the two chambers, and the two chamber leaders, helped inspire the women’s leadership conference, its theme, and its tone.

“We’re two women in business, and we’re trying to help people in business,” she explained. “When Mo and I first met, we instantly clicked; we’re helping each other, and we’re mentors to each other.

“We’re inspired by each other and we get ideas from other, which benefits our members and the region as a whole,” she went on. “We felt like we wanted to bring that feeling of inspiration and camaraderie to a bigger stage, if you will.”

As the notion of a women’s leadership conference began to crystalize, organizers, from the start, sought to take the discussion to a higher plane than most women in business have previously, and repeatedly, encountered.

“We’re trying to stop ourselves from falling into clichés concerning this topic, which is pretty easy to do,” said Belliveau. “Instead of hearing, again, ‘you need to schedule time on your calendar to relax and be by yourself,’ how about information about how women are being sucked into a lot of other agendas that aren’t supporting their own agenda, and advice on how to clear all that out so they can focus on what’s really important?

“At the end of the day, we want people to leave inspired,” she went on. “And we want them to leave with something they didn’t have when they came, whether that was a connection or a new way to look at things.”

And they are expecting the various presentations, and especially those ‘stories of risk’ noted earlier, will go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.

Indeed, such sagas will provide a personal, real-life tone to the discussion, said Anderson and Belliveau, and they will, if chosen properly, portray the full gamut of risk, address the many forms it takes, and drive home the point that risks must be weighed and taken at all stages in one’s life.

The wording in the invitation to submit an entry is very telling and speaks to why organizers put this program together. “Have you taken a bold move in your career?” it reads. “Have you struggled with work/life balance but took a risk to bring it back into balance? Have you had a gnawing feeling you wanted to quell that compelled you to take a risk? Has there been something looming over you that involved risk to overcome?”

Most women would answer ‘yes’ to most if not all of those questions, said Anderson, and that’s why she and Belliveau are expecting a strong turnout on Sept. 22.

As noted earlier, programming for the event is coming into place, and it will have a strong local flavor.

The keynote speaker will be Colleen Del Vecchio, director of Alumnae Engagement at Smith College, and a Gallup-certified strengths coach. Breakout sessions will feature:

• Natasha Zena, co-founder and publisher of Lioness Magazine;

• Angela Lussier, author, founder of the Speaker Sisterhood, and host of the “Claim the Stage” podcast;

• Tahirah Amatul-Wadad, an attorney with the Mass. Commission on the Status of Women;

• Dora Lewis, career coach at the Sullivan Career & Life Planning Center at Bay Path University; and

• Mollie Fox, a consultant and trainer specializing in leadership and negotiation.

Tickets to the conference are $99 if purchased before Aug. 25, and $119 after that date. Tables of eight are $750. For more information on the event, visit www.holyokechamber.com or www.easthamptonchamber.org.

Save the Date

Summing up the broad subject matter for this fall’s conference, Anderson, who should know, said, “risk isn’t bad … it’s just scary sometimes; it’s the unknown.”

It’s scary almost all the time, actually, and by creating an informative, interactive environment where risks can be shared, discussed, debated, and dissected, organizers of this women’s leadership conference expect that perhaps they can make such exercises somewhat less scary.

This was the motivation for the event, and the two chambers — and their leaders — believe the time, the environment, and the energy is right for such a program.

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

Cover Story Sections Women in Businesss

Words to Live By

lussierbooksIt took just nine words to change Angela Lussier’s life: “you’ll never be ready; you just have to start.” That’s good advice for entrepreneurs of all kinds, but it was especially relevant for a shy, self-conscious, but creative and ambitious woman who decided her path to leadership was learning to overcome her fear of public speaking. Today, through the Speaker Sisterhood, she’s helping women around the world do the same — and, in the process, discover who they really are and what they were meant to do.

Angela Lussier has a surprising entrepreneurial bent — surprising to herself, that is.

It began at UMass, where she studied a VHS tape to learn how to cut her boyfriend’s hair. “My neighbor walked by and said, ‘can I have a haircut too?’ I said, ‘why not?’ Then his roommate walked in and said, ‘can I have a haircut?’ I said, ‘sure.’ Soon a whole bunch of guys on the floor wanted haircuts.”

Soon, she was setting up shop in a back room and charging for haircuts, which she did until the dorm shut her down. It wasn’t until later that she realized she had been an entrepreneur, if only for a short time.

It never occurred to me that it was a business,” she said. “I just wanted to make some money to put gas in the car and buy clothes.”

Lussier tells the story to demonstrate how opportunities cross our paths all the time, and sometimes what seems to be the least likely possibility can become a successful business.

Which explains why someone who was terrified of speaking now runs a business teaching women how to find their voice.

It’s called the Speaker Sisterhood, and it helps women become more effective public speakers. But it’s much more than that, she said. “It creates a safe space for women trying to find out who they are and what they’re meant to do.”

It’s a winding story that can be told only from the beginning, after college, when Lussier went to work in marketing for Rock 102 and Lazer 99.3, a job where her natural creativity was encouraged and rewarded. But she soon learned not every job was like that; an executive at her next employer, an executive recruiting firm, eventually told her, “we knew your creativity would be an issue when we hired you.”

So, in 2009, she started out on her own, initially as a career consultant, helping people figure out what jobs were the best matches for their skills and passions. Her grounding philosophy? “You have to work in a place that respects your talents and gifts and uniqueness.”

Lussier knows something about that, having had to overcome her own physical uniqueness. She stood six feet tall at age 12 and had to endure barbs like “ogre” and “jolly green giant” — experiences which led, she realized years later, to an intense shyness and anxiety about public speaking.

“At the recruiting firm, I realized that being shy was not a great attribute to have. Looking back to the radio station, the people who were the most respected, the most followed, were people who were excellent communicators, and even better public speakers. I had this fear of being seen, being made fun of, but I wanted to be a leader. So I signed up for Toastmasters.”

It didn’t go exactly as planned at first. “I said, ‘OK, I’m going to tackle this fear of speaking because I want to be a leader.’ Six months later, I’d never said a word.” That’s when the club’s leader told her she was on the agenda for the next meeting, where she would deliver a four-minute speech about her job. “I said I wasn’t ready, but she said something that changed my life: ‘you’ll never be ready; you just have to start.’”

It wasn’t easy. In fact, she sat in her car outside that next meeting, petrified of going in, wondering if people would make fun of her or think she sounded stupid. But she took that first step, even though she read completely from notes, never looking up at the audience.

“The important thing was, I didn’t die,” Lussier said with a laugh. “So I continued to go back and give more speeches, and every time I gave a speech, not only did I not die, but I learned something about myself. I learned why I was so shy; I was able to connect it to my adolescent years, feeling so different, feeling like people didn’t understand my creativity, feeling like the black sheep in the family, like I didn’t relate to other people. Public speaking gave me not only a voice, but insight into who I am.”

That recognition would eventually form the basis of the Speaker Sisterhood, though the story would take a few more turns first.

First Steps

Lussier’s first step was recognizing she needed public-speaking skills to advance her career-consulting business, so she developed a free workshop series on how to find a job in a tough economy (remember, this was right after the recession peaked), interviewing skills, self-marketing, résumé writing, and other topics.

She pitched the idea to area public libraries without success, until Forbes Library took her up on it, allowing her to stage two separate eight-week series, a daytime series for unemployed job seekers, and an evening series for people with jobs looking for a change. After that first booking, other libraries came on board.

But she still needed to write the material. And deliver it. And she was still far from fearless on that front.

“When the first workshop came around, I drove there thinking to myself, ‘who do I think I am? No one’s going to come to this. I’m not a business owner. I’m only 28 years old; why would anyone take career advice from me?’ I sat there in the library parking lot, and a voice told me, ‘maybe you should do this because you want to be a leader.’”

Not only was the workshop a success, but Lussier gained a paid booking through it, and people kept showing up at the free library events, leading to more exposure and more paid bookings, including, eventually, one for a local Fortune 500 company. She had no idea of her worth at that point — the firm seemed surprised when she came up with a fee of $200, and she realized later she should have charged 10 times that — but she started to recognize that speaking about careers, which originally was a way to boost her consulting business, had potential as a revenue stream in itself.

“That was a huge turning point for me,” she said. “I had become a professional speaker; I’d built this skill, and people like hearing me speak. I thought, ‘I’m actually a leader; I actually did this. I can’t believe it’s happening.’”

So, while she continued her career-coaching business, she started asking herself a few questions: “where have I been most successful? What do I enjoy doing? What do people always ask me about?”

She sat down one night in front of a fire, coffee at the ready, and filled a journal with the answers to those three questions. And the one common denominator to all three was public speaking, her former nemesis. “It was like a neon sign blinking from the highway. I thought, ‘why did I not see this until right now?’”

She had already enrolled in the Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator program, but decided to switch gears midstream and morph into something different, to build an online school to teach women how to be professional speakers.

Angela Lussier

Angela Lussier addresses a Washington, D.C. audience at a TEDx event in 2010.

“We need more women on stages, more women getting paid what they’re worth, more women leading conferences,” Lussier told BusinessWest. “It took me a long time to see there should be a Toastmasters for women — a place where women can get together and share their voices and be honest and say the things they don’t get to say in the world.”

As an experiment, she co-hosted an open house for her first speaking club to see who would respond. About 10 women showed up, all strangers. At first.

“Each woman shared her story about fear of speaking up, being belitted at work, being told their opinions don’t matter, feeling like they don’t have any idea how to say what they’re thinking. Or, they’re working in a job now where they have to train people, and they’re terrified, but they don’t want to lose their job.”

Something happened that day that surprised Lussier.

“As we went around the circle, it was like each woman was giving the next woman permission to tell the truth. They came as strangers, but they left as sisters. I had never experienced that kind of transformation; I had chills for two hours. I knew this was not just a public-speaking club, but an opportunity for women to walk in the door and shed their role as wife, mother, boss — to show up as themselves and say what’s on their mind.”

She knew she had something special, and the e-mails that followed proved it — e-mails from women who didn’t attend the meeting, but knew someone who did, and wanted to join. So she built waiting lists and eventually launched clubs in Springfield, Northampton, Amherst, and South Hadley, training the women who would lead each one. Recently, a Greenfield club opened its doors, as well as a second club in Northampton.

Gaining Momentum

But Lussier saw potential for the Speaker Sisterhood clubs well beyond Western Mass., creating a curriculum and licensing model to take the concept nationwide and even international. Lehigh, Pa. and Portland, Maine were the first club sites outside the Commonwealth, and a New Zealand club marked the first overseas expansion.

“You don’t have to be a public-speaking expert to start a club, but you do need to have leadership experience and meeting-facilitation experience, and a sincere interest in helping women build this skill set,” she said, reiterating what she considers the heart of the clubs’ popularity.

“Yes, we’re running speaking clubs that teach skills, but these clubs also use public speaking as a tool for self-discovery,” she went on. “What I say to members is, ‘this is your public-speaking journey, and the more you learn, the more you’ll find out how little you know.’”

And they are learning about themselves, she noted. One woman, who works in a healing field, signed up because she wanted to build her skills to teach workshops, and after a few months, she remarked that, when she spoke before a group, she felt like a floating head, disconnected from her body. What she came to realize was that she spent so much time talking to people one on one, in a spirit of empathy, that she started to take on the energy of each person she spoke with.

“She said, ‘I become them, so in front of a group of people, I have no idea who I am. That teaches me I’ve spent my whole life being other people, and now I have to discover who I am.’ To hear someone say that is transformative — not just for the speaker, but for the audience. We’re all learning from each other’s journeys.”

Those journeys vary, she said, from business owners who want to get better at promoting their services, to teachers who interact with kids all day, only to freeze up when they meet with parents. “One has experienced several tragic deaths over the past few years and felt she’s lost herself in grieving those deaths, and she wants to discover herself again.”

The curriculum takes the form of an ‘adventure guide,’ with chapter titles like “Adventures in Storytelling,” “Adventures in Humor,” “Adventures in Audience Interaction,” and so on.

“It was a thoughtful decision to call it an adventure because anything can happen. It’s not about perfection; it’s not about doing it right. The emphasis is not on trying to be a perfectionist, but enjoying the journey. It helps a lot to reframe public speaking that way.”

By prioritizing sharing experiences over perfection, she added, participants feel less alone as they realize so many others feel the same way they do. “And that helps them build confidence in themselves.”

The meetings include prepared speeches, but also a lot of improv games, which challenges club members to be present in the moment while stretching their creativity. She knows it’s a lot to ask from new members, many of whom are approaching the club from a place of anxiety.

“The first day, there’s a lot of fear. Their voices are trembling; they’re looking around the room, thinking, ‘do I belong here?’ Then they speak again at the end, and there’s a transformation over two hours. They go, ‘wow, I’ve never been able to speak like this. This is what I need.’ I feel like the biggest step you take on your public-speaking journey is the first step. Every single step after that gets easier. So I always applaud the guests for showing up. That’s not easy.”

By the Book

Amid her transformation into the leader she’d long wanted to be, Lussier has also shared her words with the world through her books. The first, The Anti-Résumé Revolution, was a direct result of that first eight-week workshop, inspired by one attendee asking her for her notes — which totaled 120 pages. So she combined them with her own story, interviewed others who had followed her advice, and self-published in 2009.

“The whole concept is not just waiting for opportunities to show up on a job board or the newspaper, but to go out and create your own future and taking action on your ideas,” she explained.

She managed to get the book into the hands of Seth Godin, one of her heroes and the author of Purple Cow, which drives home the importance of being different and standing out fron the crowd. He recommended Lussier’s book on his blog, broadening her visibility immensely.

“That changed my whole perspective on what’s possible,” she said. “I wrote a book in my basement which was now being shared with millions of readers, being taught in colleges, and being read by people all over the world. It helped me see that, even if you think what you’re doing is only for a small audience, you never know what could happen.”

Two more books followed. She published Who’s with Us? in 2015 — sporting the subtitle From Wondering to Knowing If You Should Start a Business in 21 Days. It was the result of talking to hundreds of people about their business ideas, and takes the form of 10 self-assessments potential entrepreneurs can use to gauge their next move. She recently followed that with Do + Make: The Handbook for Starting Your Very Own Business, which progresses beyond the assessment phase and dives into practical action.

Clearly, Lussier has found multiple outlets for her entrepreneurial bent and her passion for writing. But her heart lies mostly in the work she’s doing with women — not to give them a voice, but to help them discover their own.

“It’s the most amazing work I’ve ever done. I know I was born for this reason — to start the Speaker Sisterhood and build clubs around the world,” she told BusinessWest. “I want to help thousands, if not millions, of women discover who they are, and how amazing they are, so they can go out and do what they were put here to do. Ever since I was 5 years old, even when I was a teenager and felt like an outcast, I knew I would do something important someday.”

That’s the voice that echoed in her head the night she sat in her car, stricken with anxiety, ready to drive away and abandon her dream of becoming a better speaker.

However, “I thought, ‘I’m not going to do something important if I go home.’ And even when I started my business, that was just the road to the thing; it wasn’t the thing. Now, every meeting I go to, I can’t believe I get to do this; I can’t believe this woman is discovering things about herself because, years ago, I sat in a car and said, ‘you’re going to go in and give a speech.’ That blows my mind.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss

Laying the Groundwork

The Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts recently announced a slate of initial appointments to the steering committee of the Partnership for Young Women’s Progress (YWP), its multi-sector partnership aimed at driving economic prosperity for young women in Springfield.

In February, the MassMutual Foundation and the office of state Treasurer Deb Goldberg announced their participation as lead corporate and government partners, respectively, for the project. The MassMutual Foundation awarded $150,000 to the Women’s Fund to support the launch of the partnership, while Goldberg’s office will offer its Women’s Economic Empowerment series, share state-agency-generated research and data, and participate in final recommendations.

“The YWP initiative is a new, innovative way to showcase the talent and leadership skills of young women in the city of Springfield. We are excited to be a part of this initiative and look forward to working with the young women selected for the program,” said Sarah Williams, vice president of Global Capital Risk at MassMutual, and one of the steering committee members chosen in April.

The YWP aims to elevate the leadership of local young women (ages 12 to 24) and design a lasting blueprint for investing in the Springfield community that addresses the needs, programming, best practices, policies, and research that will build the pathways to economic prosperity for themselves, their families, and their community.

The pilot is made up of two core groups, the Young Women’s Leaders Advisory Council (YAC) and the steering committee. The YAC will consist of up to 20 young women (again, ages 12 to 24) who will be selected by a competitive, city-wide nomination process that opened last month.

The steering committee is comprised of cross-sector leaders from the education, government, business, philanthropy, and nonprofit sectors (see list below). The committee’s purpose is to provide thought leadership, as well as leadership development and mentorship opportunities, for the young women on the YAC. They will also help facilitate community outreach, help attract additional resources to the project, and assist with sequencing final recommendations.

“What we know from available data is that young people, and particularly young women, are leaving our region for perceived lack of economic opportunity,” said Layla Taylor, board chair of the Women’s Fund. “While these statistics are troubling, we are excited about the opportunity to work closely with city leaders to make this project transformative for our community, and as a model for peer cities across the country.”

The three-year YWP challenges partners to:

• Create leadership and high-level decision making opportunities for young women, and reward their efforts as part of the YAC;

• Encourage the participants to become peer educators by launching philanthropy clubs or hosting workshops at their school;

• Analyze available data, examine current investments, and identify where partners can make a lasting impact;

• Create a public document with young women’s economic growth and empowerment recommendations;

• Engage message research conducted by a leading national firm to help shape strategic communications, which will be aimed at creating a positive shift from the current negative cultural narratives regarding young women; and

• Generate and fund a phased action plan for the region that will include re-granting partnerships.

“What a wonderful opportunity this initiative offers for young women in our community,” said Lydia Martinez-Alvarez, assistant superintendent of Springfield Public Schools and a member of the steering committee. “I am extremely proud and excited to be part of an initiative that will make a real difference in the lives of our young women. The guidance and mentorship they will receive is beyond measure, and we will be keeping our eyes on these young women and expecting great things from them in their future.”

Besides Williams and Martinez-Alvarez, other members of the steering committee include Ann Burke, vice president, Western Mass. Economic Development Council; Michael Clark, senior advisor and director of Strategic Engagement, office of state Sen. Eric Lesser; Dawn Creighton, Western Mass. regional director, Associated Industries of Massachusetts; Ernesto Cruz, legislative aide to state Rep. José Tosado; Dawn Forbes DiStefano, chief finance and grants officer, Square One; Pattie Hallberg, CEO, Girl Scouts of Central & Western Massachusetts; Denise Hurst, Springfield School Committee member; Justin Hurst, Springfield City Council member; Ronn Johnson, President and CEO, MLK Family Services; Rachel Parent, vice president, MassMutual, and chief of staff, MassMutual U.S. Business; Suzanne Parker, executive director, Girls Inc. Holyoke; Marian Sullivan, communications director, office of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno; and Samantha Washburn-Baronie, deputy director, Office of Economic Empowerment, office of the state treasurer.

“As a husband and father of two daughters, I recognize the importance of young women being able to have equal opportunities to succeed and contribute to their communities,” Tosado said.

Added Sarno, “this is all about empowerment access and pathways to secure better educational, social, and economic-development opportunities for the women of our community.”

Goldberg noted, when the YWP program was launched, that public-private partnerships like this one are crucial in creating opportunities to empower young women across the state.

“We truly value this partnership that leverages available resources in an innovative and collaborative way,” added Ali Mathias, MassMutual’s director of Charitable Giving and vice president of the MassMutual Foundation. “This program will not only expand the economic opportunity for young women, but also economic development in the city of Springfield.”

Even as it transitions from the leadership of former president Elizabeth Barajas-Román, who stepped down in March, the Women’s Fund has been busy with new initiatives. It recently announced a partnership with Bay Path University aimed at driving women’s leadership and educational access by providing college credits as part of the Women’s Fund’s Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impact (LIPPI) program.

Through that partnership, which aims to educate women for leadership roles, LIPPI will give participants access to Bay Path’s online classroom tools, including virtual sessions with instructors. LIPPI participants will also be able to earn three undergraduate or graduate credits from Bay Path or, upon approval, credits that can be transferable to a college or university of their choice. To date, more than 250 women have graduated from the LIPPI program.

Sections Women in Businesss

Invaluable Connections

womenbusinessdpartMembers of the Women Business Owners Alliance of Pioneer Valley say the organization has proven beneficial on many levels, offering inspiration and knowledge from other women’s experiences in a supportive and non-competitive atmosphere. There’s a comfort level in the WBOA many say they haven’t found elsewhere, and it’s helping them gain the confidence and connections to succeed at business and in life.

The organization’s tagline is “It’s Your Business; Don’t Grow it Alone,” and that axiom and related support made a significant difference to Amy Woolf of Amy Woolf Color Consulting in Northampton when she relocated to Western Mass. from Florida in 2009.

“I was a stay-at-home mom, and being in a business-oriented environment has helped me perceive myself as a professional,” she said, noting that many companies start at women’s kitchen tables, and connecting with a warm and welcoming group of professionals can help them establish a business persona.

Woolf was talking about the Women Business Owners Alliance of Pioneer Valley (WBOA), and stressed that there was nothing like it in the Sunshine State.

She went on to say the group has provided her with invaluable benefits that include support, inspiration, connections, and knowledge gleaned from other women’s experiences.

“When you work as a solo entrepreneur, you are often very isolated. But belonging to this group is like having several dozen mentors,” she explained. “You develop relationships over time: everyone has a different area of expertise, so you have people you can call when you need to figure out how to handle different situations.”

Dee Emery-Ferraro, the WBOA’s current president, agreed, and called the organization a real sisterhood.

Indeed, the group is different than many other business and professional organizations that focus almost entirely on networking and generating new business, she said.

To begin with, this group completely avoids the word ‘networking,’ and concentrates instead on providing a warm, supportive atmosphere that fosters what they refer to as ‘connections’ that allow and encourage women to share information about their business as well as their personal lives. As a result, most members get to know each other in a way that has little to do with their professional goals, although that certainly isn’t ignored.

“In addition to being business professionals, we are homemakers, wives, mothers, sisters, and aunts,” said Emery-Ferrero. “What we do professionally is only one facet of our lives.”

Beverly Astley agrees, and says the camaraderie in the group inspires women to help their peers succeed. She attended chamber of commerce meetings before she was introduced to WBOA, but found they didn’t offer what she was seeking.

However, WBOA filled that gap and has provided her with the type of support she had hoped to find in a group.

“Women think very differently than men; when you have conversations with members of WBOA, they want to get to know you as a person, not just find out about your business,” she said, adding that the group is very nurturing; women share photos of their family and talk about their children, grandchildren, home-improvement projects, and other issues affecting their lives.

Which is not to say they don’t discuss business. Indeed, those conversations definitely take place, and a combination of programs, sage advice, and even technical assistance has allowed many women to grow their companies and become successful.

Members interviewed by BusinessWest noted that competitiveness does not exist within the group, even between women who offer similar services or products.

Amy Woolf

Amy Woolf says membership in WBOA has provided her with a number of benefits, including support, inspiration, and connections.

“It’s a great first stop for anyone contemplating a business, but it’s not just for women starting out,” said Woolf. “Over the years, WBOA begins to feel like a family, and today my closest friends are women I met in the group.”

When she leaves a meeting, she noted, she always goes home with a kernel of wisdom or an actionable item — a great idea that is easy to implement. A conference can be overwhelming, but meetings allow women to make changes and “put wisdom to work” in a manageable, sustainable way, she told BusinessWest.

“The group has been very, very meaningful to me and very helpful. I don’t know that my business would be what it is today without WBOA,” she said.

Debra Sorcinelli concurred. “A lot of our members are sole entrepreneurs and want to do business on their own terms. But it brings you up a notch to be around other professionals,” said the serial entrepreneur, reiterating the fact that many women have families and other important priorities, and it doesn’t matter to members whether someone is working part-time or full-time.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we look at the programs WBOA offers and how they have helped women grow as professionals and entrepreneurs.

Meetings of the Minds

WBOA has 110 members ranging from women employed by companies of all sizes, to solo entrepreneurs, small-business owners who employ others, and females who work only part-time. As long as a woman is working in any capacity, she is eligible to join the group.

Membership dues are $95 annually, although the first meeting is free. Meanwhile, those we spoke with said the group is open to adding males to their roster, although so far none have expressed interest in the nonprofit, founded in 1982 by Renate Oliver.

Its initial purpose was to provide women with business referrals, but today it has evolved into what its members call a true sisterhood. Connections are made formally and informally, and many members use services and products offered by their peers.

The group’s main fund-raiser is its annual Women’s Night of Comedy, which features three professional female comedians. The event typically raises $5,000 to $10,000, and the majority of the profits are donated to charities that change from year to year. The next comedy event will be staged March 23 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke, and chosen charities include the SMART Girls program at the Westfield Boys and Girls Club and Safe Passage, a nonprofit dedicated to helping survivors of domestic violence and relationship abuse.

WBOA also holds monthly breakfast events on the third Thursday of the month at the Summit View Restaurant in Holyoke featuring guest speakers, as well as After-5 gatherings scheduled bimonthly on the first Tuesday of the month at the Delaney House.

Guests are invited to most events, and great care is taken to ensure they feel welcome and comfortable. A greeter is stationed at the door, and potential members are given the option of being assigned an ambassador who sits with them, answers questions, and follows up with a call to make sure they felt comfortable and welcomed.

During events, WBOA members participate in power connections, a program that gives them a 15-second opportunity to speak about their business. Shout-outs are also held, during which members praise a service or product from a peer that has helped them.

In addition, every June the organization has a Woman of the Year Celebration in which a member chosen by a committee is recognized for her contributions to WBOA as well as her community.

Over the past 18 months, the WBOA has started two new initiatives. The first is a mentor-mentee collaboration with Springfield Technical College Community created with help from STCC Associate Business Professor Diane Sabato and WBOA chairperson Lori Fortuna.

Business students from STCC are matched with members twice a year and take part in a six-week program that includes guest speakers, seminars, and information on topics ranging from self-esteem to job interviews. At the final meeting, mentees are given outfits donated by WBOA member Linda Ligsukis, who owns Designer Consigner in Southwick. Seventeen graduates were recently honored at a monthly breakfast meeting and received a certificate of achievement, gift bag, and flowers donated by member Jackie Griswold.

The second new program focuses on education and was coordinated by Debra Sorcinelli and Anita Eliason, co-chairs of the education committee. They launched the program with classes on how to use Facebook and social media to promote a business, and additional programs are being planned for the coming year.

Valuable Gains

Sorcinelli went into business in 1982 under the moniker It’s A Girl’s Thing. The Agawam entrepreneur began selling handcrafted silver jewelry, then switched to fashion jewelry, before she joined WBOA four years ago.

The timing was perfect; her jewelry business was successful, but she wanted to make a change and needed inspiration, which she found in the group.

“I have gone to other groups that are all about networking, where everyone wants to sell you something; but WBOA isn’t like that,” she said.

Sorcinelli became a member of the board of directors soon after she joined, and last year she closed her jewelry business and launched a new venture called Social Sorc. Today, she specializes in teaching individuals and small-business owners how to use Facebook and social media, and although WBOA has not added to her customer base, it has put her in touch with women who have business skills she wanted to learn.

“I have heard wonderful stories that were really inspiring, and the group allowed me to meet women who were more than willing to share their business secrets and contacts,” she noted. “We have all grown together.”

Sorcinelli also initiated change, and with help from co-chairs Kim Chagnon and Eileen Jerome, the After-5 events were born.

She told Business West that members have opportunities to speak about their businesses at these gatherings, which is ideal, as many have not done this in public, and the group is always supportive.

Sorcinelli has continued to be active in WBOA, and in 2015 she was feted with its Spirit Award at the annual Business Woman of the Year Celebration, in part for her work in helping women build connections with each other.

She says the old axiom that states “the people you surround yourself with determine your success” has been proven true with this group. Other women have supported her, and she has shared her own knowledge, which has included collaborating with members who wanted to use social media to promote their events.

Woolf told BusinessWest she was intimidated by social media before she joined WBOA, especially since it was a new marketing platform when she first heard about it. But after a member shared her own experiences with LinkedIn, Woolf gained the confidence to go home and set up a profile on the site.

“I have received a lot of free advice,” she said.

But she has also given back during annual roundtable events in which members give 10-minute presentations in their field of expertise.

Astley has also found WBOA highly beneficial. The sole proprietor does voiceovers via her business, Beverly Ann’s Voice, spends many hours alone in her studio, and finds the meetings inspirational both personally and professionally.

“You feel comfortable talking about personal things while you discuss your business in this group,” Astley said. “WBOA hasn’t enhanced my business directly, but it has given me a lot more confidence.”

Worthwhile Endeavor

Astley says every female entrepreneur should attend at least one WBOA meeting. “It’s a really good place to land,” she said.

Woolf agrees and says membership has provided her with priceless benefits.

“It’s an extraordinary organization, and my business has gone gangbusters. I am experiencing steady growth and wrapping up the best year I ever had, and WBOA has been a big part of that,” she said.

That’s a testimonial — one you hear often — that speaks highly of this group that caters to female professionals and provides them with a level of comfort they have not been able to find anywhere else.

Sections Women in Businesss

Opening Doors

Elizabeth Barajas-Román visits the White House

Elizabeth Barajas-Román visits the White House during her recent foray to D.C. for a forum on cultivating economic opportunities for women of color.

Expanding opportunities for women is not just a regional issue.

As an example, Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts CEO Elizabeth Barajas-Román and Program Officer Ellen Moorhouse recently joined stakeholders from the academic, private, government, and philanthropic sectors at the White House for a forum hosted by senior administration officials.

The forum, “Advancing Equity for Women and Girls of Color: Continuing Progress and Building Toward Change,” focused on developing strategies that break down barriers to success and create more opportunity for all Americans, including women and girls of color.

“This forum focused on women of color and how to be successful economically, education-wise, and in their daily lives,” Barajas-Román said. “The Women’s Fund has been working closely with the White House Council on Women and Girls in regard to our work here in the region with young women of color.”

She explained that the Women’s Fund has focused on economic security and prosperity for women of color, and the White House Council has been a strong resource for gathering data and unveiling some of the trends at play on a region-by-region level.

“We’ve been able to take a deeper look at our region, and one of the trends that stands out is how many young people are leaving the region right after high school; they’re going away to college and not returning — so much that the Census indicates Springfield and Holyoke have a statistical shortage of young people,” she told BusinessWest. “We know this means these people are not buying homes, not investing in the community. So much happens when we lose these people right when they’re starting to make a life for themselves.”

As part of the forum, Barajas-Román took part in a roundtable discussion with several national figures, including Tina Tchen, assistant to President Obama, chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, and executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls; Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama, who oversees the White House offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs and chairs the White House Council on Women and Girls; and Melissa Harris-Perry, editor-at-large for Elle magazine.

As one of about 20 women’s foundation leaders from across the U.S. who participated, she was able to talk about how organizations like the Women’s Fund are trying to make Springfield a model for raising the economic status of young women.

“It was a tremendous opportunity to be invited among organizations from New York City, California, these large areas — and interesting to hear their feedback,” Barajas-Román said. “Springfield really does look like the rest of the country, and they’re watching to see if we’re successful and it’s a model that can be taken to other areas that look like us. There were national funders in the room, national organizations that work with young people. It was a great opportunity to talk about all the ways Springfield is innovating, and we were hoping to not only bring back some additional ideas and partners, but to attract more attention to what’s happening here.”

The forum built on Obama’s efforts on behalf of women and girls, like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, expanding fair pay and paid-leave protections, and convening the first-ever White House summit focused on building workplaces that support working families and business.

The White House Council on Women and Girls has identified five data-driven issue areas where interventions can promote opportunities for success at school, at work, and in the community. Continuing research in these areas and exploration of new efforts can help advance equality for women and girls of color.

Under Obama’s leadership, the Council on Women and Girls has worked to ensure government policies appropriately consider these kinds of challenges and persistent opportunity gaps faced by many disadvantaged, marginalized, or underrepresented girls. The council also aims to inspire the private sector to do the same, to ensure that everyone who aspires to get ahead has a chance to succeed.

“By representing Western Massachusetts at the White House, we can ensure that our collective voice is heard on important policy matters,” Moorhouse said. “Only by having a seat at the table can we work to safeguard the progress we’ve made, while simultaneously laying the groundwork for future policy and social change.”

—Joseph Bednar

Sections Women in Businesss

The Producers

Gaudreau Group

Jules Gaudreau stands in the middle of a long line of women in key positions at the Gaudreau Group.

The Gaudreau Group in Wilbraham is like most other insurance and financial service agencies in terms of the products and services it offers to clients. It is different, though, in the fact that an extraordinarily large number of high-level positions have been filled by women. This development wasn’t exactly planned, but then again, it wasn’t really an accident, either.

Jules Gaudreau has been in the financial services field for more than three decades, more than enough time to know that this industry has moved well beyond that old catch-phrase ‘the insurance man.’

Until fairly recently, it was, in fact, a man who sold you insurance and updated your account when it needed updating, said Gaudreau, adding that while women have been a big part of this business for decades, their roles were generally restricted to service work, especially in personal lines.

That’s were. Indeed one doesn’t hear that phrase ‘insurance man’ much anymore. And this is especially true at Gaudreau, where one might only hear it in the context in which the company’s president used it — as an anachronistic descriptor better suited to another decade.

And also, and this is more important, that phrase wouldn’t in any way be an accurate method of describing the workforce at this Wilbraham-based company.

The firm has what would, by almost any measure, be considered a large and impressive number of women in top positions, with many of them serving as ‘producers,’ as they’re called in this business.

This development wasn’t exactly planned, meaning the company didn’t set out to create this kind of gender balance in such positions, said Gaudreau, adding quickly that it didn’t really come about by accident, either.

Instead, the current situation materialized through an atmosphere that certainly encourages women to consider and then seek out producer roles, said Gaudreau. But more importantly, it developed because of solid role models, effective mentoring, teamwork, and the success of those who have put some non-traditional titles next to their names on their business cards.

“I really believe in a meritocracy,” he explained. “The women in my firm are where they are because they’re really good at what they do. They just happen to be female.”

BusinessWest talked with three of these women, all producers. They have different stories, and took different paths to get where they are, but there are many common denominators — from simple business ambition to a desire to work in a position where they can help people.

Judy Davis

Judy Davis

Judy Davis, an employee-benefits strategy advisor, was a long-time dental hygienist when she decided she needed something else. “I didn’t want to be in a room looking inside mouths all day — and people didn’t seem to like my bubbly personality,” she explained, adding that she segued into financial services and has spent the past 34 years in the field, never once choosing to look back.

“I answered an ad in the paper, back when there were help-wanted ads in the paper, and was hired by a very powerful MassMutual agent, and worked for him for two years,” she explained. “I was a sponge; I just loved insurance — I really became interested in the field.”

She said she’s been recruited to several jobs within the industry — joining Gaudreau this past spring — and at each stop “wanted to be the boss; I wanted to be in charge, a leader in the business.”

Jenny MacKay

Jenny MacKay

Jenny MacKay, a member of BusinessWest’s most recent 40 Under Forty class, had mostly the same career goals, only she didn’t have to shift her employment focus. She was still a student at Western New England University, majoring in financial services, and not at all sure what she would do with her degree, when she attended a presentation by a panel of speakers comprised of WNEU management graduates.

One of them was working for Northwestern Mutual, and her remarks certainly caught MacKay’s attention.

“He started out in the internship program at Northwestern, and he walked into the downtown Springfield office, saw its high ceilings, beautiful offices, powerful people, and everyone driving a Lexus,” she recalled. “And he said, ‘I wanted to drive a Lexus, so I started an internship there.’ And before the talk was over, I decided I want to drive a Lexus, too, and I started an internship there.”

Moving the story forward, she said she had a license to sell insurance before she could legally buy alcohol.

Tracy Goodman

Tracy Goodman

As for Tracy Goodman, she refers to her present role in personal insurance sales as an “accidental career,” but also “where I should be,” which means this isn’t really an accident.

She started out in human resources, took some time out to raise a family, and, during that time, realized that she needed to get back in the business world. She began at an AFLACK office, and soon after arriving a manager asked what she was doing behind a desk when she should be out selling. And that’s what she’s been doing ever since.

For this issue and its focus on Women in Business, we talked at length with Davis, MacKay, and Goodman about not only their success in this field, but also why women can, and usually do, thrive in these roles and consider them an attractive career option.

Policy Shift

To help explain the way things are now (especially at his firm), and why, Gaudreau first did some flashing back 40 or 50 years ago, using his own memory and anecdotal evidence to get his points across.

“When I first came into the business, what women did was serve as service people,” he explained. “Most of it was because that’s where women entering the workforce in the 1940s went — service.

“MassMutual had these giant typing pools, huge rooms filled with women,” he went on. “When you needed something typed, you’d hit a button, and one of the people who didn’t have anything to type came up and grabbed what you needed done. It was very random.”

Things changed, he went on, because the modern consumer changed, he told BusinessWest, and so did selling methods to a large degree.

“It’s not about telling and yelling and selling anymore, which was the traditional optic of what the insurance guy was like — the insurance man,” he went on. “Telling people and then selling them — that’s what’s he did. Today, it’s much more consultative, and I think women have much more ability to listen, to learn, build rapport, and solve problems. What people are looking for is servant leadership; they’re looking for people to listen to them and solve their problems, as opposed to telling people things.”

Davis agreed, and, without stereotyping either gender, said women, by and large, possess more of the qualities customers are looking for in a salesperson, especially those related to listening and solving problems.

“I have a very large book of business in employee benefits and passion for my clients,” she explained. “I think my clients feel that, and this is what helps us become successful women in business.”

She said employee benefits has become a very complex matter in recent years, especially for smaller companies that lack their own, dedicated human resources department, and must navigate a sea of products, programs, and corresponding acronyms, themselves.

Such firms need a partner, she said, and women possess many of the skills required to serve in that role.

“We’re an extension of a human resource department,” she explained, “and people value our input.”

MacKay concurred, noting that early on (remember, she got her insurance license at age 20) she decided she would rather work with business owners than a husband-and-wife team gathered around the conference room table.

“Business owners just seem to get it and understand why insurance and financial services is important,” she explained. “And this led me down the path to employee benefits, because I could then work with business owners on a regular basis. My problem was I didn’t know anything about health insurance.”

Suffice it to say, she’s learned, first while serving the accounts of producers, and then becoming one herself.

Summing up her career to date, she said she always possessed an interest in financial services — and in selling — but needed some direction when it came to determining that this is what she should be selling.

Sales Force

Goodman’s story is somewhat similar. When she was told that she shouldn’t be behind a desk and should instead be out selling, she had her doubts, to say the least.

“I laughed and said ‘that’s ridiculous,’” she recalled. “I went home, and every single person in my family and personal world said ‘thank God you finally realized that you’re supposed to sell.’

“I started winning trips, doing great, and meeting all my numbers,” she went on, adding that she was recruited by another insurance company to grow personal lines before joining Gaudreau last April.

She said that while her story is unique in some ways, there are many women who don’t believe they should be in sales or financial services, for whatever reasons, and they are possibly overlooking a career option that enables them to put their strengths to work in a way that’s rewarding on many levels.

She summed it up by relating a recent meeting with a client that speaks to not only her acquired talents, but the basic skills possessed by many women — whether they know it or not.

“I sat down with a business owner and we walked through all of his insurance, and the end, he said ‘I have been waiting for years for someone like you to help me understand what I have, what I need, and what kind of coverage I should own.’

“I like that challenge,” she went on, hinting strongly that other women might, as well. “Every case for me is different, and I like solving the problem and closing the sale.”

MacKay echoed those thoughts, adding that sales work is, in many ways, entrepreneurial in nature, and many women have such tendencies — again, whether they know it or not.

“I came from a family of all entrepreneurs,” she said, noting that they all own different court-reporting operations. “So I grew up with the entrepreneurial spirit of freedom of work, working for yourself, making your own decisions about how you spend your valuable time.

“This role here allows me the best of both worlds,” she went on. “I get to work for an employer where there’s training and there’s leadership, and someone to hold my hand and teach me new things, so I’m not completely out there on my own. But as a producer, I’m in charge of my own income destiny, I’m in charge of my own time, I can make my own decisions about what I want to be and what I want to do. Many women would thrive in such situations.”

The Bottom Line

MacKay actually eschewed the Lexus in favor of a BMW. But the point to the exercise hasn’t changed, even if the hood ornament has.

There are rewards in sales and across the broad financial services sector, she and the others we spoke with said using one clear voice. Sometimes women get into this field by accident, but success doesn’t come accidentally.

It comes from hard work, listening to the client, and working in a partnership to solve a problem. These are talents that most women possess or can attain, and therefore they should not close the door on this career option.

By being proactive — and entrepreneurial — they can further retire that phrase ‘insurance man.’

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

Sections Women in Businesss

Tapping Potential

Jill Monson-Bishop

Jill Monson-Bishop says women who own businesses can benefit from creating a team of advisors who can support them.

That famous quote from Oprah Winfrey — “Follow Your Passion: It is What Will Lead to Your Purpose” — is emblazoned in oversized letters on a wall in the waiting room of Inspired Marketing Inc. in Springfield.

The quotation is in line with the belief system embraced by the company’s self-named ‘chief inspiration officer,’ Jill Monson-Bishop, a title she put on her business card when she established her full-service advertising company, then went on to hire team members with a driving desire to help clients realize their goals.

The climate within the office was also carefully orchestrated: there are three dogs on-site most days; they sport the titles  ‘employee satisfaction manager,’ ‘customer experience associate,’ and ‘siesta manager.’ Everyone has a pair of comfortable slippers under their desk, and not only is collaboration encouraged, milestones of any kind are announced and celebrated.

It’s a formula that has led to success: Over the past three years Inspired Marketing has retained 93% of its clients and increased revenue by 362%.

“We don’t strive to be the number-one local marketing agency and win awards,” Monson-Bishop said. “Our aim is to have our clients win awards and reach goals and know that everyone here is invested in their growth.”

Indeed, awards have been forthcoming: One client was feted with a Better Business Torch Award; others were finalists for the honor; and still others have been named Super 60 companies by the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce for revenue and revenue growth.

Monson-Bishop tells new clients she doesn’t just want to purchase media for them, create a logo, or do graphic design; instead, she wants to be part of their team. That vision has materialized, and one business sends her their weekly sales report.

“I’m part of their growth or struggle depending on the week,” she noted.

She took pride in the fact that one client, the Good Dog Spot was recently able to open a second location, which was among its goals, and says she and her team have been invited to a number of company holiday parties.

Team members at Inspired Marketing

Team members at Inspired Marketing have increased revenue over the past three years by 362% and retained 93% of their clients.

One thing she focuses on is creating synergistic relationships between clients. For example, when Square One needed a pizza donation, she approached Frankie and Johnnie’s Pizzeria. Today the restaurant donates pizza to the non-profit once a month and employees and families involved with Square One frequent the eatery and buy lunches there, which they hadn’t been doing in the past. In addition, Frankie & Johnnie’s will cater an event for Square One next year.

Another example is a collaboration between Bob Pion Buick GMC; Square One; and the American International College Men’s –D1 Ice Hockey team.

AIC had planned to stage a toy drive at a December ice hockey game, and, thanks to Inspired Marketing, Bob Pion has volunteered to donate a truck, the toys will go to Square One, and every donor will receive a ticket to another AIC hockey game.

“I believe businesses are stronger together and if they can find opportunities to work together, they can grow together,” Monson-Bishop said “Our clients know we put our heart into what we do. If I write a press release and the media uses it, my teammates come running down the hall to tell me. They get very excited when we help a business attain success.”

Personifying Beliefs

Monson-Bishop says starting her own business has been the most difficult and rewarding thing she has ever done.

“I love being an employer,” she said, “being able to watch people’s dreams come true and being part of it.”

The decision to launch her advertising firm was made after her mother died unexpectedly at age 56. The loss was devastating, but also prompted the thought, “What if I only get 56 years on this planet? What would my legacy be?”

Monson-Bishop had worked as a radio broadcaster, and when her mother passed away she was selling coupon advertising and making more money than she ever had in her life. “But I didn’t want my legacy to be selling 50% off pizza coupons,” she said.

“I enjoyed working with clients and had found that small and medium-sized businesses were not being served by advertising agencies. Many were good at what they did but they had no idea how to spend money effectively on marketing,” she noted, explaining that the belief was reinforced by Butler Carpet & Upholstery Cleaning, which had been in business for 30 years, and became her first client.

Monson-Bishop launched her new venture by renting a desk in a friend’s Springfield office. She moved to Agawam after hiring one part-time employee; then moved back to Springfield two years ago, which is a city she truly loves.

“I just purchased a Victorian in the Historic McKnight area, and believe the city is on the cusp of a renaissance. Great things are happening and I want to be part of them,” she said, noting that she also owns another house in the City of Homes.

Today Inspired Marketing has five team members in addition to Monson-Bishop  and gets help from two interns every college semester.

Their business is split equally between marketing and events, and clients include Smith & Wesson; Northwestern Mutual, American International College and the City of Springfield School Department; as well as smaller businesses.

They also work with a number of nonprofits including Valley Venture Mentors and the Zoo in Forest Park. “They do so much for us and we need to support them,” Monson-Bishop said, noting that last year, Inspired Marketing staged a Tiny Tea to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Square One’s popular fundraiser. Dignitaries included Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse who enjoyed tea seated at a child’s table. They wore hats and the event attracted a lot of media attention.

The crew also takes pride in coming up with creative advertising ideas. When they did a campaign for one non-profit they mailed reading glasses to potential donors with a note that said, “See the difference we can make,” then went on to explain the charity’s mission.

Another client received the attention it was seeking when Inspired Marketing did a mailing that contained scratch tickets with a note that said, “You wouldn’t throw away the enclosed without taking a chance on it. Take a chance on us and you will win every time;” while a press release delivered to media outlets about a classic-car cruise night contained matchbox cars; and another client’s business blossomed due to a marketing promotion in which packets of seeds were mailed with handwritten notes that said, “Let us help your business grow.”

Unique Challenges

Monson-Bishop believes female entrepreneurs face challenges unique to their gender. Her own accomplishments are significant: not only has she grown from a sole entrepreneur to a thriving advertising firm; she lost 125 pounds 3 1/2 years ago, has kept it off and been sugar-free for more than 1,200 days; was chosen as a BusinessWest 40 Under Forty 2010 class member, among other honors.

When she was notified about the most recent award, “I only celebrated for about 10 seconds,” she said, adding that she believes it’s easier for women to praise other people’s accomplishments and victories than take pride in their own.

“We tend to beat ourselves up for mistakes and need to learn to celebrate our own accomplishments and say ‘thank you’ when we receive a compliment,” she noted.

She believes her weight loss has led business professionals to take her more seriously and is now able to purchase a professional wardrobe, which was difficult to do when she was 125 pounds heavier.

Monson-Bishop has an advisory board composed of 10 local business leaders who have guided her over the years by providing honest and critical input. She shares her financial information with them and believes every female business owner could benefit from creating her own confidential circle of supporters.

“When you have a hard day or have to make a difficult decision, it helps to have someone to talk to, and that person isn’t always your spouse,” she said.

The founder of Inspired Marketing also feels many women suffer from what she calls the “Wizard of Oz Syndrome,” which is her metaphor for the imposter syndrome.

“The world may see you as the big and powerful Oz, but sometimes you feel like the man behind the curtain who is afraid to have it pulled back and be found out,” she said.

But testimonials from clients say that Monson-Bishop and her crew are truly inspired, have the ability to attract attention and help clients succeed.

Blazing a Path

Monson-Bishop not only used personality and drive as criteria when she began hiring people, today when a new position is created all team members are included in interviews with prospective job candidates to ensure they are a good fit.

Heather Ruggeri was thrilled the team chose her to be vice president and chief events officer, even though her credentials didn’t exactly match the job description.

“But she had a willingness to learn; a desire for absolute customer satisfaction and it was evident that she was deeply loyal. She didn’t want a job, she wanted to be part of something,” Monson-Bishop said, adding that Ruggeri is one of many team members whose professional achievements have made her proud.

Kristin Carlson was hired immediately after graduating from Fitchburg State University, and says her fellow team members have become like family and whenever they reach a goal, it is viewed as cause for celebration.

“I have run down the hall to Jill’s office when we have achieved something such as getting 10,000 Likes on a client’s Facebook page,” said Carlson. “We get excited about things here.”

That enthusiasm is generated by passion and the purpose that Monson-Bishop has found since she started her business venture. “You only get one chance at life, and this is it,” she said.

Cover Story Sections Women in Businesss

Bonding Agent

Liz Rappaport

Liz Rappaport says the camaraderie and support she has received from other mothers in the PWC will make leaving her baby daughter Ellie easier when she returns to work.

The Women’s Professional Chamber of Commerce is like most of the organizations with those three words in their title. But it is different in one important respect — the membership shares common challenges, issues, and emotions as they go about trying to balance work and life. This makes the WPC not only unique in character and mission, but also quite effective in providing needed support to members.

Jenny MacKay has not forgotten the first Women’s Professional Chamber (WPC) meeting she attended three years ago in Springfield.

It was a luncheon with a moderator and panel of speakers that included top female executives from Smith & Wesson, Columbia Gas, and Health New England.

An employee-benefits consultant for the Gaudreau Group in Wilbraham, and also a 2016 BusinessWest 40 Under Forty honoree, MacKay had attended events sponsored by many other local chambers, but this one was decidedly different.

“It was interesting and so inspirational to hear how these women talk about how they learned to balance the same life challenges I was facing or will have to face in the future,” MacKay said, adding that today she is a member of the WPC board of directors. “They talked about their biggest issues, which were things other women could relate to, and it was inspiring to hear that having a family won’t hold you back, that you don’t have to choose between a job or children. I’m afraid of what having kids will do to my career, but being part of the group makes me realize I am not alone.”

Liz Rappaport has also found the personal support she needed in the PWC.

The manager of Century Investment Co. in West Springfield and a 2014 BusinessWest 40 Under Forty honoree, she joined the group three years ago and said it has taught her invaluable lessons.

“Other women have told me you can never be perfect in your family life or on the job, but if you do your best; you can balance things out,” she noted, adding that she gave birth three months ago to a daughter named Ellie, and the advice she received helped her understand the challenges that will confront her when she returns to work this month.

“I’m eager to return to the PWC and talk to working moms because I have different questions now for my fellow cohorts,” she said, noting that she is the secretary of the group. “It helps knowing that they are juggling multiple roles, and if they can do it, I can do it, too.”

It was interesting and so inspirational to hear how these women talk about how they learned to balance the same life challenges I was facing or will have to face in the future.”

The PWC is a division of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce, but is its own entity. Its 300 members are at different stages of life and career, and their jobs encompass a variety of professions in diverse fields. But they share a common theme: trying to balance their work with their personal life and obligations, a task most women struggle with on a daily basis.

Membership makes it easy for them to find other female professionals who can share stories and helpful hints about how to maintain a balance as they strive to fulfill their own expectations about being the best business professional, best mother, best wife, and best daughter, while playing an active role in their community and doing volunteer work.

It is this quality that sets it apart from other chambers. Women tend to network very differently when they are alone with their peers than they do in a mixed-gender group, and personal stories and situations are shared as readily as business cards. Although membership in the PWC can help them succeed in business through connections that are made, the ones they form usually result from bonding through intimate discussions.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we take an inside look at the PWC and the ways in which women benefit from belonging to a group where dealing with personal and professional issues that intertwine is something they all relate to.

Appreciable Differences

The PWC was formed in 1953, and although its name changed from the Women’s Division of the Springfield Regional Chamber to the Women’s Partnership before it was given its current moniker in 2010, the group has always provided services to the community, local businesses, and its members.

Jenny MacKay

Although Jenny MacKay belongs to many local chamber groups, the Professional Women’s Chamber is the place where she gets the most support.

Education has always been paramount, and scholarships have been granted annually to non-traditional women students since 1965. The recipients are often returning to the workforce after years of being at home, and three individuals have each been selected to receive at least $1,000 in recent years.

The calendar runs from September to June, and since the chamber’s officers and members of its board of directors know how difficult it can be for a woman to juggle multiple roles, two meetings feature speakers who share first-hand accounts of the personal struggles and roadblocks they hit along the road to success.

There are also evening events, which are usually held at local retail establishments that allow members to shop while they network in a relaxed setting.

The year begins with a kickoff luncheon in September, which features a compelling speaker, followed by an After Hours Ladies Night in October and a PWC-produced luncheon event at the Western Mass. Business Expo (slated for Nov. 3 this year). A second Ladies Night is held in December.

The new year is heralded with a Tabletop Luncheon; there is a third Ladies Night in February, and the second headline speaker luncheon is held in March. A fourth Ladies Night is scheduled in April, and the year culminates in late May with an event held to honor the Woman of the Year.

“The Ladies Nights are held at local shops; we’ve gone to Cooper’s Gifts in Agawam, Kate Gray in Longmeadow, and Added Attractions in East Longmeadow,” said MacKay, naming a few noteworthy outings and adding that the shops provide wine and hors d’oeurves.

“We try to schedule things that women like to do that can provide them with some stimulus as well a break from the stressors in their lives,” Rappaport said, noting that the evenings help women achieve an effective work/life balance. “Networking can be mundane, but these nights out are a nice distraction, and we realize that if a woman is going to carve out time to attend a meeting, we had better make it worth her while.”

But while networking does occur during the Ladies Nights, business introductions and connections that are formed are secondary to the personal relationships that evolve when women are in an atmosphere they find fun and enjoyable.

“What someone does for business is not as important as the fact that you have made a new friend; we talk to each other and find commonalities,” Rappaport explained.

MacKay concurred. “Our Ladies Nights don’t involve the commitment of a sit-down dinner for two hours every month. We don’t want to add more commitments to a woman’s to-do list because we understand how busy women’s lives are,” she said.

The PWC also has a six-session mentorship program called Reaching Goals, aimed at giving students from Springfield Technical Community College the professional and personal skills they need to succeed in their chosen careers.

Rappaport is a mentor and has worked with women ranging in age from 18 to 38. She has spent time with some outside of the meetings and says that, in some cases, the program has resulted in a student landing a job due to the connections she makes.

Gender Issues

The majority of the group’s members are over the age of 40, so Rappaport and MacKay plan to reach out this year to Millennials who may not know about the PWC and what it has to offer, while continuing to provide programs that interest women of different ages at different stages of their careers.

MacKay says this initiative is important because Millennials are trying to establish themselves in their chosen careers, and many are experiencing conflicting emotions as they struggle to create a healthy work/life balance.

“They’re working hard, planning important events such as weddings, and also trying to figure out if they can handle having a child without fearing that something will suffer,” she said, adding that the benefits of membership are priceless and the relationships women form with each other are much more intimate than those that result from other chamber groups.

MacKay works in a male-dominated occupation, and has gotten valuable advice from PWC members about how to deal with a variety of situations as well as strategies for communicating with male co-workers, since they relate to each other very differently than women.

In addition, the group teaches women that failure isn’t an end and can lead to a new beginning, which became apparent during a luncheon where Tracey Noonan was the keynote speaker.

The founder of Wicked Good Cupcakes, who successfully won her bid for a partnership on the popular TV series Shark Tank, shared her story of how her business evolved after she started baking cupcakes in Mason jars with her daughter Dani in their South Shore kitchen in 2011.

“She was a single mom who took a baking class in order to bond with her daughter,” MacKay said, recounting how Noonan shared the hardships of being a single mom, what is was like to start a business — who she got help from and who refused to help her — and how success has affected her life.

The story resonated with women on a variety of levels, as did the personal tale told by Lisa Ekus of the Lisa Ekus Group LLC. The Hatfield entrepreneur, who represents cookbook authors and food products, spoke to the PWC in March about the struggles of balancing her personal and family life.

Other speakers have addressed issues of equal pay and the lack of qualified candidates to fill jobs in precision manufacturing, and what women can do to help fill the gap, and Rappaport says she has learned many valuable lessons, including the fact that each woman is her own best advocate.

But feeling and projecting confidence is not easily accomplished, because many women are self-deprecating, and even getting a compliment on one’s clothing can lead to an embarrassed answer and insistence that it was purchased on sale.

“Women don’t want to be thought of as pushy or too assertive,” Rappaport noted, adding that, although she has never heard of a man with those traits being referred to in a condescending manner, it’s not uncommon for women to suffer from such labels.

MacKay agreed, and said if she doesn’t smile all the time, people tell her to do so and add, “everything will be all right,” which she finds very frustrating.

Valuable Setting

Rappaport is looking forward to returning to assuming a professional role in the family business when she returns to work following her maternity leave. She knows it won’t be easy and she will worry about her baby daily, but she finds strength in numbers and the knowledge that her peers have learned to effectively juggle responsibilities in different arenas of their life without feeling they have to be perfect in every role.

But women agree that the unrealistic belief is pervasive in society today.

“When did the message, ‘you can have it all’ change to ‘you have to do it all’?” MacKay said. “It used to be inspirational, but it has become exhausting because it’s an unrealistic and impossible goal.”

Which is where the PWC comes in. It helps women understand there are others who share the same feelings and concerns who can provide each other with reassurance that doing their best each day is truly good enough.