Women’s club tapping the network

Women-only forums provide a space for shared experiences, mentorship and networkingbut meetings should have clear objectives

Over the past two years, there has been a steady rise in the number of women-only networking events, mentoring workshops and professional conferences across business hubs. The global narrative around women in the workforce has made its impact felt in the conference halls and seminar rooms of New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru.

The need and rationale are evident. According to the Gender Gedi Index for 2014, compiled by the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute (Gedi), India ranks in the bottom five among 30 countries surveyed on factors that promote high-potential women entrepreneurship (innovative, market expanding, export-oriented companies). India was ranked 124 in the World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap Report 2013" on economic participation and opportunity for women.

But does the women-only approach really help change this reality? And do the usually stated goals—of shared experiences, mentorship, and an expanded network—result in tangible career advantages?

Anu Acharya, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Hyderabad-based personal genomics company Mapmygenome, says women groupings can be effective provided they go beyond the unstructured angst around glass ceilings and work-life balance. “I’m frustrated when conversation is limited to rambling, and that happens enough. You can do much more when a group of women get together."

She cites the example of WISTEM 2015, a recent event in Dubai for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), where the conversation was led by working groups and defined talking points. “It worked because we all got to actually know each other, and the agenda was driven by real content." It included sessions on raising capital as a woman entrepreneur, a leadership workshop, and a hackathon for younger women. A one-to-one mentorship format also works well, says Acharya, who is on the board of mentors at a venture capital firm.

Sairee Chahal, founder of Sheroes, a New Delhi-based jobs and careers community for women, agrees that sometimes women-only events can become “pink parties"—and often, it’s the same group of women who attend. Yet spaces for professional women to come together should be encouraged, she says.

“We forget everybody doesn’t have the same levels of exposure or jobs. To build Sheroes, I have to constantly meet new companies as well as women who are looking for jobs. Plus, I take on several speaking assignments. But chances are that if you are an urban middle-class woman in middle-level roles—in, say, accounts and operations—you don’t meet too many people from outside your company," she says.

Women-only forums can be useful for this “unsexy middle" across cities such as Mysuru, Pune and Bengaluru as well as for self-employed women professionals. “For many, it is their first instance of getting out to actively network—within their industry, or outside of it," Chahal says.

Smriti Shetty Dalvi is a regular at several women-only events, such as the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network and TiE Stree Shakti programmes. Dalvi, founder and director of Florista, a Mumbai-based chain of flower stores, says she has found women are a little less inhibited at these events than in a mixed gender, or mostly male, group. “I’ve found them to be very responsive as well. I recently needed to get in touch with e-commerce start-ups, and was immediately connected to several by reaching out within these networks," Dalvi adds.

“We need a hell of a lot more forums for women to choose from. This isn’t an either-or situation. The schism we need to fix is too wide for us to stop right now," says Anuradha Das Mathur, founder of niche media company 9.9 Media. In 2009, Mathur was one of the 35 women chosen for the month-long Fortune-US State Department Global Women’s Mentoring programme. This connects talented women leaders between the ages of 25-43 from across the world with those on Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women Leaders’ list. Mathur had Patricia Fili-Kruschel of the US media group Time Warner as her mentor. “Thanks to the amazing women I met, the takeaway that has stayed with me since is understanding the big difference between being smart and being wise at work."

What needs fixing

Of course, much more can be done to improve existing forums and make them more effective. Clear objectives and defined goals are critical for networks to be sustainable. Following through on how members interact, and having a calendar of well-conceived formats, including workshops, training and coaching sessions beyond networking get-togethers, would be welcome, Dalvi says.

“I’ve seen too many women’s networks start off with really good intentions but fizzle out after a few sessions. You need a purpose, a goal, upfront, otherwise it’s useless," says Aparna Jain, founder and CEO, Zebraa Works, which runs leadership programmes, including one where 5-15 women professionals at similar levels in different sectors come together for individual sessions and group coaching over nine months.

Figuring out the audience mix is the key to success. Events such as Microsoft’s hackathons for women, or the event organized by the Anita Borg Institute in Bengaluru last year, bringing together more than 100 women engineers to work on apps for humanitarian causes, are formats that work well. These engagements can become very useful for women professionals and entrepreneurs seeking co-founders to start up with, or looking for new job opportunities.

“Homogeneity of audience is very important. I’ve found several women-only events to be a mishmash of college students, aspiring entrepreneurs and freelance professionals. That won’t help. But build a network of women CFOs (chief financial officers) or women in technology and the outcome will be qualitatively different," says Mathur. She cites the example of the New Delhi-based WILL Forum India, which works with senior women to create a more balanced leadership across organizations and companies. WILL also runs a programme to build capability for women on boards of companies.

“I remember attending a women alumni event as part of IIT’s (Indian Institutes of Technology’s) Global Alumni Conference in 2007. It was one day before the main conference and nearly 200 of us showed up. That was very valuable. I made friends for a lifetime there and consult several of them on business issues," says Mapmygenome’s Acharya, an alumnus of the IIT, Kharagpur, where she was one of the only 15 women in a batch of 400.

Let the men in?

Zebraa’s Jain says the narrative, and women’s right to gender-neutral workplaces and equal opportunities, will change only if the conversation includes men. “Beyond a point, I don’t think women-only forums work on their own. Women need to navigate every dynamic at the workplace, and that includes men. Also, men need to be forced to think differently so they start to see how women are disenfranchised."

For example, the France-based Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, brings together women and men from the government, academia and business world for its global network. “Eventually, women need to engage with businesses and those who run them, a majority being men. Forums that facilitate this will become more valuable and relevant," says Chahal.

Some of the women-only forums in the country

u Ficci FLO: Part of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci), the Ficci Ladies Organization, or FLO, says its objective is to promote entrepreneurship and managerial excellence. Membership is open to women entrepreneurs and professionals for a one-time fee of 11,000 and an option to subscribe annually for 6,000, or a lifetime subscription for 75,000.

u WEConnect International: Part of a global not-for-profit, WEConnect International in India identifies, educates and connects women-owned enterprises with market opportunity. Women owners of companies that are 51% controlled, owned and managed by one or more women can register as members for a one-time fee of $500 (around 30,000).

u TiE Stree Shakti: This forum aims to connect and enable enterprising women through workshops, mentor programmes and networking events. Membership is open to professionals and entrepreneurs. The initial registration is 3,000. Registered members get special rates for events and workshops.

If you aren’t part of any groups or networks yet, here’s what you can do:

—Aparna Jain, founder and CEO, Zebraa Works

■ Do get out a couple of times a month. I remember when my daughter was young, and I was taking a break, I would get out at least once a week. Don’t get walled out. Check yourself. Do it consciously.

—Sairee Chahal, founder, Sheroes

■ Watch yourself at these forums. Don’t get caught up in the victim narrative. Think proactively. Be aspirational.

—Anuradha Das Mathur, founder, 9.9 Media