By Carol Thompson The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.
It's not the kind of business meeting where a woman would be asked if she can juggle family responsibilities and a career.
Nobody would ask if she plans on returning to work post-pregnancy, or scold her for arriving late after taking a child to school.
"We're all under-rated all the time," said Kris Rockwood, owner of Press On Juice. "It's critical to have an environment where you can be late. You can be emotional. You can give a gift and show your love and it's not looked upon as a weakness, but rather a strength."
Rockwood and Shawn Burnside started Women in Business, a group that meets monthly over breakfast. Laptops and notebooks crowd coffee, quiche and toast as the small group of business owners discuss recent progress and challenges.
It's a casual, yet organized routine that started in September 2013. The women, all moms, take turns updating the others on business progress, asking questions, giving advice and motivation.
"Women get afraid of being successful," said Lisa Maxbauer Price, assistant editor of Grand Traverse Woman and contributor to First For Women magazine. "That's the power of the group. We push each other forward."
Some women have established careers, such as artist Mariah Manning, who has 20 years of experience selling commissioned artwork, and Lynn Rodenroth, who started Great Lakes Bath & Body in 2008.
"The benefit everyone experiences from it is the affirmation," Rodenroth said. "It's possible. (Starting a business) doesn't have to be an isolating experience."
Some are new to business ownership, such as Burnside, who opened Old Mission Tours last year when she was a college-educated stay-at-home mom.
"I look back at some of our early meetings, and we were all focused on a direction," Burnside said. "It's really cool to see where those went over the year."
Some are still working on launching businesses, such as Karin Chung, who is starting Umami Mami, a line of black garlic.
They work in an era of increased workforce participation for women, as women make gains in earnings and business ownership.
The number of women ages 25 to 64 in the U.S. labor force more than tripled from 1970 to 2002, and women's earnings compared to men increased from 62 percent in 1979 to 81 percent in 2012. Women own 28.8 percent of businesses in the U.S.
Rockwood, who used to work as director of sales for a Chicago-based customer satisfaction company, said boardrooms she's seen aren't pictures of gender equality. She estimates that 80 percent of the people she worked with were men and she doesn't think the Grand Traverse community is much better.
"We're a male-dominated community," Rockwood said. "We wanted a safe place to go where we can empower our strengths and not be told about what society would call our weaknesses."
Women own 24.5 percent of businesses in Grand Traverse County. Women represent 49.3 percent of the county's workforce, and their median earnings is $23,763, while men's is $35,805.
The members of the Women in Business group help each others' businesses grow. They collaborate on projects and share experiences in licensing, food safety and marketing.
Missy Russell, who owns Nicholas Farm with her husband, understands the benefits of collaboration. Her CSA baskets sometimes boast bottles of Press On Juice and may soon show off Chung's black garlic, and she plans to grow garlic for Chung and vegetables for Rockwood's juices. Her vegetables will be highlighted in a children's book Maxbauer Price is writing.
Collaboration means community, an asset for any entrepreneur.
"The best thing I did for myself this year was join this group," Maxbauer Price said.
Maxbauer Price had to leave promptly from the December Women in Business meeting -- the mom with "two full-time careers and three little boys" doesn't have time to spare.
But nobody minded. They understood.