From The Straits Times    |

In the past year since setting up a content consultancy, I have joined a couple of women’s only communities to meet like-minded business owners, expand my network, and learn how to build a scalable brand.

One of the first events I attended was a panel discussion by Launchpad by Honeycombers (not technically a women’s club, but 95 per cent of its members are female), and I remember feeling inspired and rejuvenated post-event. It was like I had walked into a room full of positive cheerleaders – the women were friendly, supportive, and happy to share experiences, challenges, failures, and successes. 

I felt empowered. The next day, I connected with some of them via Whatsapp: “Let’s catch up for coffee.” “You mentioned you wanted to work with a content consultant, can I help?” 

Cue vague responses and empty promises to schedule a catch-up. 

That was my induction to a women’s community, and I wondered if I had made a misstep. At the risk of sounding naive to the realities of networking, I expected more, especially since these clubs place such emphasis on support, authenticity and non-judgement. 

I had paid about $500 (it was a discounted rate) for a year’s membership, which promised in-person and virtual events, including masterclasses, weekly calls with other members, and group mentoring sessions. The most value I’d gotten from the network is undoubtedly the active Whatsapp group chat, where you can find word-of-mouth recommendations about anything and everything, from lawyers specialising in IP to social media hacks. 

Image: Getty Images

In a way, I do acknowledge that more can be done on my part to get to know the 300-strong community better. Founder Chris Edwards signs off her e-mails with “Remember – you only get out what you put in!” (no pressure, I know). Life has gotten in the way of me joining the events, weekly calls or masterclasses. 

Yvonne Mak, chairperson of Young Women’s Leadership Connection (YWLC), and a litigation and arbitration lawyer for Withers, agrees that members need to make the effort: “You only get out of the organisation what you put in. For me, it was when I really started to do a lot more volunteering [with YWLC] and working with different people that I got to form deep friendships and experience different things. I suppose if you’re a passive member, you may not get the same level of connections or meaning.” 

Indeed, for any meaningful working relationship to form within a networking community, concerted effort must be made over time. When I sent a mass message in the Launchpad group chat asking for insights for this feature, I received replies from at least six different women. This was not the first time I had reached out to the group for quotes for articles, to which they’re generally very responsive. Requests for personal favours are less so. For example, I recently asked for help for a survey, and received only two responses. 

Regarding their experience joining Launchpad, each of them responded with similar answers highlighting their appreciation: In the past year since joining the group, they had made new connections and friends, gained new skills and some had even grown their business. 

Matching value to worth 

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Having learnt that I needed something more structured from my experience with Launchpad, I decided to join Uncommon, a women’s only community founded by Yolanda Lee, who formerly held corporate leadership roles at Deliveroo, Uber and Rocket Internet. Uncommon seeks to bring elements of coaching and behavioural science to help women achieve their personal and professional goals. 

I liked the idea that we would be inducted in core groups of eight to 10 women, presided by a coach or mentor to help guide the discussions. I forked out $2,500 (discounted rate) for the one-year privilege, and went in with the objective of learning how to brand myself and position my business. 

Six months into the programme, I’m not quite sure if I’ve gotten my money’s worth. Having shelled out a four-figure sum, my expectations were high. This meant I was looking forward to better response times from the community manager, more regular events that are not limited to only 10 or 20 members, and more prescriptive business advice. 

Sashena Hassamal, a manager at audience-based marketing company Buyerforesight, concurs: “I was enthusiastic about joining Uncommon because of its format and growth potential with peers. The group meetings feature insightful and interesting conversations, with exceptional insights from moderators and coaches, whether it’s within the core groups or at the dinners. But despite the occasional opportunities, there has been a lack of follow-through and additional support for women to connect outside of specific sessions. I have reached out to several people during different opportunities with no response, and wonder how to make this a true community fostering not only growth, but also friendship and fraternity.”  

Different expectations

“Women are from Venus and men are from Mars,” jokes Anju Cawthra, director of the Seasoned Singapore Expat Women (SSEW) network, to elucidate that women tend to form different relationships when they’re in a community. They are more likely to get vulnerable, and give (and expect) emotional support. 

Anju adds: “Often, people don’t have those friendships where they can share something intimate, shameful, disturbing, worrying, or stressful. I see a lot of the interactions at SSEW, and it’s just so heart-warming. 

“As women, we communicate differently. We have interests in different things. Not to say that you can’t have men who are friends and share closely with them, but women get a lot out of talking, discussing their issues, and having a safe space with like-minded women who aren’t going to judge you.” 

This is something that Pratiksha Kulkarni, founder of Matsu Design Studio, has noticed as well: “In women-only networking groups, there is heavy emphasis on sharing your story, building connections and so on. This can take a very long time. 

“Whereas in men-led networking groups, they are focused on the services or business you provide. It’s a pretty straightforward approach. Because in all honesty, no one goes into a business networking group to make life-long friends or find a life partner. It’s purely business and growth related.”

Many would beg to differ, however: Many of the women I spoke to mentioned that they joined the groups to make friends as well, as they were looking to expand or rebuild their social circle.

Even at YWLC, which only accepts PRs and citizens, Yvonne mentions that some women join to make friendships, especially those who had just returned from overseas, or those who felt like they had outgrown old relationships.

Creating a safe space for women

Women-led communities started to develop in the early 1900s, when women realised that the biggest social and political decisions were being made behind closed doors in gentlemen’s clubs. This led to the creation of women-only clubs and communities, where they could find connection over shared personal and professional challenges. 

In Singapore, women’s clubs are not new – Primetime, an offshoot of the American Women’s Association, started in 1997 as a network for women in corporations, while Crib Society, focused on women entrepreneurs, started in 2014. YWLC, too, has existed since 2008. 

“Women have unique challenges due to the dual roles they often have as a carer to children or parents, and there are benefits of networking with others who understand this juggle or face the same,” shares photographer Rebecca Downie, who’s a member of Launchpad and UK-based The Athena Network, which also has a chapter in Singapore. 

“Moreover, women-only networking provides access to successful female entrepreneurs who can serve as role models and mentors. This can be crucial for guidance, advice, and inspiration. It’s vital that, as much as we are looking up for advice and inspiration, we hold our hand out to those behind us on the journey.” 

We’re familiar with the discriminations that women face in society and in the workplace: In Singapore, women still take on most of the household duties, and earn 4.3 per cent less than their male counterparts. There’s no denying that women’s clubs can help level the playing field. 

This means helping other women get a foot in the door, or giving them access to hidden opportunities. 

Megha Singh, founder of B Inc and ex-community manager of Launchpad, says: “I’ve had to experience the odds being stacked against me by the simple fact that I had to accompany my husband to Singapore as a trailing spouse. There were so many restrictions placed on me regarding where I could work and how much I could earn, which would seem like real patriarchy if the law weren’t the same for trailing male spouses too.” 

“Women have unique challenges due to the dual roles they often have as a carer to children or parents, and there are benefits of networking with others who understand this juggle or face the same”

Rebecca Downie

Joining platforms like Crib Society, Launchpad and The Athena Network has helped her tremendously, both on the personal and professional front: “If I trace back all my big projects and the work I’ve done, it’s been through the connections I’ve made with the different networks I’ve had.” 

Rebecca cites the example of her friend, an IP lawyer called Kiran, who met a copywriter and social media expert as part of The Athena Network. “Without their help, she wouldn’t have been so visible and active on social media. Plus, direct referrals from within the network have won her new clients,” she shares. 

Making the right choice 

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Before determining which club to join, the most important thing is knowing your why, and determining the value that it might bring to you. For one, where you sit on the introvert-extrovert spectrum plays a role too. Take Lavania Rosie, founder of women’s networking platform Tinted Wateva, for instance, who didn’t feel welcome when she first joined the women’s community BWN Asia in 2009 (it’s now defunct). 

“They had their cliques,” she says. “Being an introvert, I felt really left out. Introverts have to really put themselves out there, mostly for career reasons. When some women’s communities become too big, they lack the space to make new people feel welcome.”

Then, you need to evaluate: What’s your objective? Are you a new mother struggling with mum guilt and need a safe space to voice your concerns? Are you an entrepreneur, looking for advice on how to scale your business? Are you in the midst of a career transition and undergoing an existential crisis? Different groups cater to different people, and it’s helpful to have multiple conversations with the group, as well as members, to understand what you can get from it before taking the plunge. 

A group’s silent – and underrated – weapon is no doubt its community manager. A community is only as good as the person (or people) behind the scenes, ensuring that member requests are duly answered on time, and group chats are healthy and not toxic. They also act like a matchmaker, and make sure that the right connections are made. 

“What we want is a non-judgemental and very welcoming environment where you really feel that sisterhood, that you can sit and laugh, and share anything and everything,” says Lavania. “The first important criteria is a sense of belonging. After that, everything can be built from there.”