By Alexander Deedy
Independent Record, Helena, Mont.
Caitlyn Fransen first joined the Women’s Leadership Network when she moved to Helena three years ago after graduating from the University of Montana in Missoula.
At one of her first meetings, Fransen met Samantha Erpenbach, who worked as a conference planner. The two got to know each other over time, and when Fransen was applying for a job as the education and conferences coordinator with the Montana Hospital Association, she reached out to Erpenbach for help.
The more experienced professional took Fransen under her wing and guided her through the application. About eight months ago the Montana Hospital Association hired her.
“Those relationships I built through WLN have really propelled me forward in my career,” Fransen said.
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Now celebrating its 30th year as an organization, the Helena-based Women’s Leadership Network is reinventing itself in an effort to appeal to any woman who wants to improve her professional life.
WLN launched in 1985 as the Montana Association for Female Executives, an exclusive association that targeted women in the upper echelon of government or corporate hierarchy.
As the workforce and women’s role within it changed, MAFE members rebranded the group as the Women’s Leadership Network in 2004.
The organization is doing a sort of rebranding expansion, promoting itself on social media and reaching to attract the young, professional women.
“Really, any woman who wants to reach further in their professional life is welcome,” WLN President Mary Palkovich said, adding that WLN is especially seeking to engage the younger demographic of up-and-coming female professionals, like Caitlyn Fransen.
Palkovich said Fransen “represents a really great vision of what we would like to see more of in women’s leadership.”
The organization has 69 members now, and Palkovich is hoping to reach 100 by the end of this year. Though dominated by women who live in Helena, Palkovich said any woman in Montana is welcome to join. The Helena group is also working to communicate and interact more with professional women’s organizations in Great Falls, Bozeman and Missoula.
As WLN grows, Palkovich wants to see the group become more active in the community by participating more frequently in events like NAMIWalk or Race for the Cure. If the group grows large enough to amalgamate the funding, Palkovich said, she would love for WLN to offer a scholarship.
The network holds monthly lunch meetings in the Montana Club room on Sixth Avenue. Each luncheon features a guest speaker that discusses topics relating to leadership or community.
Recent speakers include Anne Perkins, who founded the anthrozoology program at Carroll College, and Chance Eaton, an International Business Coach who discussed developing employee engagement.
Palkovich said the group is planning a celebration for its 30th anniversary, but hasn’t set a firm date. As part of the celebration WLN is reaching out to all of the past presidents over the organization’s 30 years.
Ellen Feaver served as the group’s first president while she was a cabinet member under Montana Gov. Theodore Schwinden.
Feaver had attended a retreat of professional women in Billings and figured Helena women could use a similar network of support.
“Women have always had a more difficult job in the workplace than men have, and 30 years ago it was even more so,” she said.
“I was in a position where I learned a lot. I felt like I had the energy and the knowledge to support other women in our community,” Feaver added.
Feaver said she’s thrilled that the WLN is still running and she feels it still serves an important role for networking and support among professional ladies.
To attract new members WLN is holding a “mixer” on Tuesday, March 10, from 5-7 p.m. at the Hampton Inn, 725 Carter Drive.
“It’s a really good way to get the insight into the Helena community,” Fransen said about the organization.
She added about the women who participate: “We’re really good colleagues, but we’re also really good friends and supportive of each other.”
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