Women Supporting Women: How A Mentorship Program Seeks To Ignite A Women-Led Economy In Western Massachusetts

By Douglas Hook

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The “Women Innovators and Trailblazers” mentor-match program is designed for women to connect with other women who can help guide them in their careers. One key subject which keeps coming up for both mentors and mentees is the topic of work-life balance.

There are more women gaining bachelor’s degrees, in the workplace and starting their own businesses than ever before, but the business world is still dominated by men. A Western Massachusetts mentor program hopes to help them navigate their careers.

Women Innovators and Trailblazers’ six-month, Mentor-Match program is designed for women to connect with other women at various professional levels who can provide mentorship or sponsorship. The goal is to help women find a trusted mentor or mentee who are ready to commit to honest conversations that can change lives.

Ann Burke, vice president of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts who serves as a WIT mentor, is passionate about the program because it allows women to blossom in an environment that is supportive and nurturing.

Women Innovators and Trailblazers started in December 2015 when 12 women were invited to breakfast to discuss the idea of making Western Massachusetts the place for women entrepreneurs and innovators.

“This region is a good place for women entrepreneurs. We’re testing that concept [because we thought] ‘is this real or is this something that we’re just saying.’ We looked at some of the demographics that came out of Valley Venture Mentors, Spark and others,” said Burke. “We see a disproportionate number of women of color, women entrepreneurs’ [and] women as part of entrepreneurial teams. We also have three women’s colleges and we also have like the Harold Grinspoon Foundation supporting entrepreneurship.”
Burke went on to say that Western Mass. is “a very fertile place, no pun intended” for women entrepreneurs and to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams and professional ambitions.

Entrepreneurial businesses have been thriving in Western Mass., says Kristin Leutz, the CEO of Valley Venture Mentors, which has helped over 200 “infant” companies start their journey. At the beginning of 2019, these companies had grown and raised over $28 million in revenue, $23 million in investments, and created over 600 jobs.

WIT is focused solely on bringing more women into the fray.

“I went to the first breakfast meeting and their message really resonated that they were kind of this loose organization of women who just want to be able to help each other in the valley specifically,” said Katie Taccone who is on the marketing committee for WIT but is also the founder of OpenPixel Studios. “They have a mission to ignite a women-led economy in Western Massachusetts.”

For the women in the program, either mentor or mentee, one key factor kept coming up: the work-life balance.

“I’ve had male mentors and I’ve had female mentors and they’ve both been extremely powerful for me and helpful, but I would say I got some advice from the male mentors that maybe was different than from the female mentors,” said Michelle Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes-Benz Springfield who serves as a mentor. “Some of the same pressures don’t exist for men than they do for women. That’s just a fact.”
Wirth pointed out the many conversations that a group of men would have but women do is “how am I going to figure out work-life balance” which men aren’t as cognizant about. She did stress that this was her own experience. This sentiment was mirrored by other WIT entrepreneurs.
While women are more educated and more involved in the workforce than ever – comprising 50.2% of the college-educated labor force up from 45.1% in 2000 – women still seem to take on more of the work duties and don’t give up any of the household duties and nobody is changing their expectations according to Wirth.
“I think the balance is hard to when you’re starting a business, like when I have the flexibility within my schedule to pick up my son if there’s an emergency at daycare,” said Amanda Plaine, owner and co-founder of Marketing413. “I have that flexibility which is great and that’s what I’m trying to build for my family.”
Plaine is Wirth’s mentee and has been meeting once or twice a month for the last year to get advice on her business. At the time both women had just given birth and this was something that Plaine wanted advice on.
“Having another woman understand what that was like, starting a business and raising children. That work-life balance was an added plus,” said Plaine. “Juggling those things together was so difficult and it probably would have been harder to explain that to a man. Not because they’re not doing things within the household, they are, but their tasks are a lot different. There’s a lot of other things that do fall naturally on a woman.”
At one of the panels that WIT hosts, the question of the difference of mentorship between men and women if you’re a female entrepreneur came up. Wirth said that essentially there’s no difference when you come down to the business side of it. There’s no difference between a male or a female giving advice.
“I would say the difference really lies in the connection that’s able to be made and the topics of discussion that’s able to be had where you identify on a different level because you’ve had different experiences,” Wirth added.
She spoke about the unavoidable fact that men and women have different life experiences in life and some cases, men may prefer to be mentored by other men and women by other women.
“It’s different. Some of the same pressures don’t exist for men than they do for women. That’s just a fact,” she said.
For more information about WIT or to sign-up for the Mentorship Match, follow via Facebook or visit the website.
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