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Talking It Out

Women’s Leadership Network Gains Momentum, Welcomes New Members

Carla Oleska and Susan Jaye-Kaplan say the idea for a new women’s network in Western Mass. was born over dinner in New York City. Dining with a number of professional women from across the country, the two friends kept hearing a consistent theme within various conversations.

“Many people were talking and sharing ideas and stories,” said Kaplan, “but we kept hearing the same thing; women, especially young women, were saying, ‘we need something … some sort of network that can help us make things happen.’”

From there, it took little more than a shared glance between Kaplan and Oleska to make that hope a reality.

A year ago, they launched the Women’s Leadership Network (WLN), and in that time membership has risen to more than 100 women from across the region, representing a wide array of ages, careers, and influences.

Kaplan and Oleska are quick to point out that, while they started the venture, they’re already looking forward to passing the torch and watching the network grow and change on its own. Already, a group of women have signed on to serve as the WLN’s core, representing several different types of industries. This group includes Karen Woltjen Hines, owner of Woltjen Hines Marketing; Valerie Bonatakis, Maguire Center manager for Elms College; Brenda Olesuk, firm administrator with Meyers Brothers Kalicka; Lindsay Porter of Big Y Foods; Kathy Cardinale, owner of Cardinale Design; and Lynn Ostrowski, director of Health Programs and Com-munity Relations at Health New England.

“We said we’d get it started so the idea wouldn’t get lost,” said Kaplan. “We work quickly, and we have the connections to make things happen. But we want this to be owned by the next generation — these are the women who will give it shape and take the network where they feel it will have the greatest impact.”

Indeed, the two are not strangers to women’s causes and organizations. Kaplan is the founder of GoFit, a nonprofit that works with women and children to improve their health, fitness, and awareness of the importance of both; and of the Pioneer Valley Women’s Running Club. Oleska is the executive director of the Women’s Fund of Western Mass. (WFWM), an advocacy and grant-making entity based in Easthampton, and one of hundreds of similar women’s funds across the country.

The pair’s latest venture is one focused on networking, mentoring, education, philanthropy, and the overall advancement of women and women’s causes through these means.

“We’re not trying to duplicate any organization that already exists in the area, but complement them,” said Kaplan. “This is a network of all types of women, and a way for them to find each other.”

Giving Back

That said, the network has joined forces with the WFWM in a philanthropic sense. Just two months ago, the Giving Circle was created, welcoming members to join (though they’re not required to) through a $100 buy-in. When the network reaches $5,000 in contributions, the WFWM will make a one-time match of that amount, and work in concert with network members to identify a beneficiary.

Giving circles are seen across the country, and often work in tandem with women’s funds (there’s a Berkshire-based group that also collaborates with the WFWM), and Oleska added that, together, they provide a strong sense of value to one’s philanthropic efforts.

“The Women’s Fund will administer and distribute these funds, but the giving circle will let us know which area of giving is most interesting to them,” she said. “We’ll help them secure information and access to education and answer their questions, and when they’re ready to administer the funds, they can choose to fund a specific grant or fill a gap. There are a lot of ways to do both.”

Because giving circles make the final decisions as to where grants and gifts go, funding is available for a wide array of projects. Kaplan added that she hopes this broad availability of funds, as well as networking and mentoring opportunities, will continue to spread as the Women’s Leadership Network evolves.

“We have the ability to reach more groups in the community,” she said. “We want to support the Women’s Fund as well as others — we want to sit at a table with all types of women in Western Mass.”

Kaplan was quick to note that she and Oleska are also working toward achieving greater diversity within the network, by welcoming not just professional organizations to that table, but cultural groups as well.

“We should all be working together and bridging gaps,” she said. “When a job opening arises, it’s open to everybody, not just specific circles.”

To that end, part of the network’s mission is to raise the profile of its members within the business community through a number of educational and mentorship opportunities. The group now meets quarterly, combining a social aspect with guest speakers or panel discussions on specific topics. A recent talk, for instance, was led by Dr. Maria Sirois, a pediatric psychologist who has worked extensively with children and families facing terminal illnesses. Sirois is also the author of Every Day Counts: Lessons in Love, Faith, and Resilience from Children Facing Illness.

The meetings are held in various locales across the region, and Kaplan said this nomadic aspect of the network is intentional, to foster a feeling of ownership across the four counties of Western Mass. and to recruit new members.

“We want to create a sense of community,” she said. “The group is so new and young that it’s exciting to see it introduced to larger circles. I see the need for women to unite in Western Mass., and the bottom line is that I want my friends to see that need, too.”

Oleska concurred.

“Making an organization work to its fullest potential really is all about the connections,” she said. “It’s about making connections and sustaining them, and the result is stronger and better communities — and not just communities of women. When a change is made among groups of women, the effects reach their families, friends, co-workers, and employers.”

Strong Beginnings

So far, women across the region seem to be embracing the network with real enthusiasm. Kaplan said that when the group’s first meeting was scheduled, 50 women received an E-mail with a time, place, and a caution that there was no agenda. Despite that nebulous schedule, though, all but three of those invited came — and created their own agenda through conversations about education, charitable giving, career advancement, and, as Kaplan puts it, “the issues of our day.”

“The informal structure allows us to look at how many different things affect women and families,” she said, “and it helps us create a crossover between the networking piece, the mentoring piece, and the funding entity. Women generally don’t want to just write a check — they want to get involved, and have learning experiences as they give back.”

As the WLN continues to evolve, Kaplan and Oleska said the conversation will continue, as the organization gradually takes on an identity of its own.

“This is what the women in this area want,” said Kaplan. “And once a group of women are off and running, I truly believe that there’s no stopping them.”