By Gary Haber York Daily Record, Pa.
Sherri Dietz said she was a little nervous talking in front of people, as she stood before about 20 or so other members of the Women's Referral Exchange Network on a recent Wednesday in a private dining room at the Roosevelt Tavern.
"We're not people, we're friends," one of the other members told Dietz, the owner of Wellness Massage Works in West Manchester Township.
The friendly message calmed Dietz's nerves and she launched into a flawless presentation about her massage therapy business and the path -- both personal and professional -- that led her to go into business.
At one point during Dietz's talk, someone called for a show of hands about how many of the group's members have been clients of Dietz. Almost half of the hands in the room shot up.
Those two moments sum up what the women's networking group is all about -- creating a supportive environment in which women refer business to one another and develop the kind of professional connections that help grow their business.
Men have long had their old boys networks. WREN and other women-only networking groups in York County are helping women entrepreneurs and professionals make their own contacts.
Women's Network of York started about 30 years ago and has about 75 members, said Theresa LaCesa, its president. The group's purpose is to "inspire, engage and empower women," she said.
York County has no shortage of networking groups with a membership of both men and women. But some members of women-only networking groups say it's a different dynamic being part of a group that's for women only.
"We're able to talk more freely," said Lisa Barshinger, present of Women's Independent Networking Group of York. "It's much easier to open up when you're with a group of all women."
Many of the 20 members are working mothers, so they not only share referrals but advice on parenting and juggling career and family, said Barshinger, a business development representative for First Capital Federal Credit Union.
Almost one in three businesses in the York-Hanover area -- 29.1 percent -- are owned by women, according to nerdwallet, a personal finance website, so there are plenty of potential members for networking groups for women.
"Women are great referral-givers," said Vicki Hoover, a marketing specialist at WGTY radio and one of WREN's founders. "Women talk more than the guys do."
WREN is a category-specific group, which is designed to eliminate members fighting over referrals. There's only one banker, or lawyer or veterinarian in the group, for example. Women's Independent Networking Group of York is also category-specific, said Barshinger, the group's president.
The Women's Business Center Organization at York has a slightly different focus. The group, which has 36 members, launched in 2008 and is open to women from the community. While time for networking is built into each meeting, the gatherings also feature a talk from a high-profile person from outside the group.
Recent speakers have included Erin Casey, an executive with Rudy Art Glass, and Heather Warner, a television news anchor at Fox 43.
WBCO started as a way of boosting women who were early in their careers by introducing them to other women who could serve as role models, said Mary Meisenhelter, a member of the steering committee and a professor of management and organization at York College.
Philanthropy is an element of some of the groups.
Women's Network of York gives an $1,500 scholarship each year to a female student at Harrisburg Area Community College's York campus.
Women's Independent Networking Group of York supports groups including Olivia's House and Leg Up Farm.
WREN's members raise money for a different charity each quarter. At the group's most recent meeting, members turned in the piggy banks they had put out at their place of business to collect money for the Children's Neuroblastoma Cancer Foundation. The group raised $538.
Beyond the networking and raising money for charity, many of WREN's members have formed friendships that extend beyond the meetings, said Hoover, one of the group's founders.
"We're all here to help each other grow," she said.