By Mike Persley The Frederick News-Post, Md.
In 2004, Sheri Cates, an insurance agent from Mount Airy, attended a business networking event in Frederick and noticed something she thought was peculiar.
As she stood in a room filled with booths set aside for business owners, she was taken aback by the number of women who filled those booths, she said. Owning a business was something historically associated with men, she said, but at the meeting, she got her first glimpse of the growing number of local women who were jumping into the fray. She puffed her chest with pride, she said.
"It was about 80 percent women," she said. "Lawyer? Woman. Accountant? Woman. Salesperson? Woman."
Cates paid nearly $500 to attend the event, and there were limitations on the number of each type of business that could set up booths. She immediately thought she should create a similar networking group that was less expensive and more accessible to help fellow female entrepreneurs.
Out of that meeting came Mount Airy Women in Motion, a group of female local business owners that meets monthly to network and share business ideas. The group has grown to more than 120 members throughout central Maryland, and has become a staple of the Mount Airy business community. Business owners including hairdressers, pet walkers and physicians are members.
In October, the group was a signature sponsor of the Mount Airy Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk. In November, the organization charged canned or boxed goods as an entry requirement for its meeting. The food was donated to Mount Airy Net, a food pantry. Admission to the group is normally free.
"No woman should ever have to pay to help her business grow," Cates said.
Alice Settle-Raskin, of Woodbine, started attending the group's monthly meetings, which are held at the M&T Bank in the Twin Arch Shopping Center, in 2011. She works independently, doing public relations for agricultural companies. She said she started attending meetings to search for business opportunities, but she came away with a swath of new ideas. One woman helped her design her website, she said. Another helped her with writing news releases.
Last week, she started a new company, Communicate Maryland, to promote small businesses throughout the state. She said she plans to consult several members of the group as the business grows.
"Everybody's got innovative ideas," she said. "This just puts them all in one place."
Robin Cooney, of Mount Airy, is the regional vice president for Arbonne International, which sells health and beauty products.
Cooney said that in addition to the one-to-one transactions she's had with group members, she's also expanded her circle of references. On several occasions, she's sold her products to members, and in return, she refers people to them when their business needs come up.
"It's like you meet someone who's looking to buy a house. Well, [it's like saying] 'Oh, I know this Realtor,'" she said.
At each month's meeting, a guest speaker is invited to give a lecture on a different aspect of building and expanding a business.
In November, a stress reduction coach was invited to teach members how to relax. An earlier speaker taught etiquette in business consulting.
Rene Bonde Shiffler, part-owner of Blossom and Basket Boutique in downtown Mount Airy, said she finds it inspirational to see women in the group becoming more successful.
"I'm young," she said. "You see what these other women have achieved and what they will achieve, and it makes me think, 'Hmmm, what can I do myself?'"