Sections Women in Businesss

Consultant Seeks to Expand WomenUpFront Concept

Creating a Sounding Board

Cathy Crosky

Cathy Crosky says women owners benefit from having a sounding board comprised of peers navigating similar issues and challenges.

Attorney Paula Almgren says she knows she’s a much better, much smarter businessperson now than she was before she joined a group called WomenUpFront about 18 months ago.

She credits the Pittsfield-based organization, which launched three years ago and is composed of fellow small business owners, with everything from helping her take basic, common-sense steps, such as creating a website for her practice, to developing an appetite for risk taking, including a book she’s planning to write on one of her specialties — navigating community-based care.

“I’ve taken a lot of actions I might not have taken, or would have taken longer to implement, if I wasn’t part of this group,” she said, citing the website as just one example. “And you become accountable to the group; if you say you’re going to do it, you have to do it.”

And yet, Almgren literally can’t wait until she can stop attending the monthly meetings of this group.

Indeed, there is a ceiling regarding annual revenues for membership in this intriguing group — $1 million — and Almgren, who started her practice in 1996, intends to break her way through it sometime soon.

When she does, she’ll be able to ‘graduate’ to a group called the Women Presidents Organization (WPO), which has pretty much the same basic mission statement and MO as WomenUpFront, but is obviously for those with larger ventures and often different challenges.

Transitioning to membership in WPO is the unofficial, usually unannounced ambition of WomenUpFront members, said Cathy Crosky, an executive coach and organizational transformation consultant with Charter Oak consulting group in Williamstown who conceptualized and now leads both organizations.

Paula Almgren

Paula Almgren

She told BusinessWest there are many stories like Almgren’s still being written in Berkshire County. They involve women who have found a comfort zone — not to mention myriad learning opportunities — in a group of roughly a dozen that she described early and often as a “sounding board.”

It is now Crosky’s ambition to replicate the success of the Pittsfield group in Hampden County. She noted that statistics clearly show that more women are choosing entrepreneurship as a career path, and the Greater Springfield area is certainly no exception to this rule.

Like the Pittsfield WomenUpFront group, the one planned for Hampden County will be limited to first-stage companies — it is not intended for startups, said Crosky, adding that it is focused on business, not networking, although there is certainly some of the latter as well.

“The idea behind the group is to help women to get beyond the day-to-day challenges and look at the business more purposefully and more strategically,” she said, adding that, to help meet that goal, she has brought in experts on subjects ranging from employment law to time management to address members. “It’s a deep dive into business issues and challenges, and it’s a learning group.”

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we take an in-depth look at the success achieved by WomenUpFront in Pittsfield, and how Crosky plans to make this concept more of a regional phenomenon.

Getting Down to Business

Unlike most members of the Pittsfield WomenUpFront group, Pam Sandler’s immediate goals do not include graduation to WPO.

That may eventually happen, she said, but at present, she’s comfortable with the revenue patterns being generated by the Stockbridge-based architecture firm she launched more than 30 years ago that bears her name and specializes in both residential and commercial work.

Pam Sandler

Pam Sandler says women have to juggle their lives differently than men do, which leads to unique challenges balancing business and other obligations.

“I was different than other women in the group — I really didn’t want to grow my business; I thought I was stretched as far as I could be stretched,” she said, adding that, generally speaking and economic downturns aside (they traditionally hit this sector very hard), she can generate as much work as she wants and needs to handle. “I was, and still am, far more interested in working smarter — I was getting pretty burned out.”

And, like Almgren, she believes she’s already made significant progress with that goal. As evidence, she cited the fact that she’s not burning as much midnight oil, and not because she has fewer projects on the books.

“I don’t work as many hours as I used to because I don’t have to — I’m working smarter,” she told BusinessWest. “I have less stress, and I’m more focused on the big picture — and I owe much of that to my once-a-month fix.”

That fix, as she called it, WomenUpFront, was in many ways inspired by WPO, said Crosky, adding that she was approached by several women who knew they could benefit from such a group, but didn’t fit the revenue criterion.

Like WPO, the new group was designed to be a forum where common issues and problems can be discussed confidentially, she went on, adding that members soon discover that, whatever challenge they’re facing, they’re certainly not unique, or alone, in that fight.

“The demands of running a business are increasingly more challenging,” Crosky told BusinessWest. “The roundtable provides an opportunity for women to share some of these challenges they have that are similar and offer support, best practices, and ideas — and learn from each other.”

Almgren concurred. “I find that there’s a lot of problem solving in the group — every time I go, I learn something new,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s really helpful as a business owner to be able to talk about what’s working and not working with your business and share ideas with other women business owners.”

Crosky noted that, while some business groups have certainly enjoyed success with a mixed-gender format, the women-only structure of this group appeals to many because of the commonality of issues and a generally shared outlook on business and how to manage.

“Many women report feeling much more comfortable in a women-only group because women lead differently than men and the challenges that women face in the marketplace are different,” she explained. “There’s also the challenge of balancing work and their personal lives, because they do have primary responsibility for children and aging parents, despite the changes in role definition.”

Sandler agreed.

“I find that women have to juggle their lives differently than men do,” she said. “I have three children, and I have to organize their lives and my work at the same time, which has been a real challenge.”

Crosky announced her intentions to form a Pioneer Valley chapter of WomenUpFront in the spring, with the support of the Business Growth Center and PeoplesBank, which have offered to provide meeting space and other forms of assistance.

She’s been working since then to recruit the eight to 10 women entrepreneurs she needs to launch. She knows they’re out there, but she also knows that most individuals who can use help are also those who find it most difficult to commit the time required to be an active participant in such a group.

If she can get a few minutes with a prospective member, she advises them it’s necessary to make the time.

Meeting of the Minds

Crosky said there is no firm timetable for starting the Pioneer Valley chapter of WomenUpFront.

The task of making women aware of the organization and its benefits and convincing them to commit the requisite time and energy is ongoing.

Overall, she believes expanding the concept across the Valley will help individual business owners meet their goals, but also benefit the region in its quest to encourage entreprebeurship and create jobs.

“Not everyone wants to grow beyond $1 million, but everyone wants to be more efficient and stabilize their business,” she said. “And that’s what we’re here for.”

For more information on WomenUpFront, call (413) 822-1263.

 

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

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