The History Of The Elgin Business Women’s Network
Written by Aniko Varpalotai, presented at the WRED General Annual Meeting in Stratford, November 15, 2000
Retyped and Added to by Gail McNaughton, February 14, 2011
The Elgin Business Women’s Network (EBWN) was organized by a small group of business women in and around Shedden during the summer of 1997. Vicki Luke, who owed The Closet Exchange in Shedden, a second hand clothing consignment store, together with Janice Norley, who provided bookkeeping services, were the founding members of the group. It had struck them that there were numerous and diverse small businesses in the area, owned and operated by women, and that there might be some value in getting together as a group to share ideas and experiences and organize some learning opportunities from which they would all benefit . Vicki had already had some experience with WRED when she opened her own business, and was able to introduce the group to this organization and its many resources.
WRED was a Women & Rural Economic Development group, based in Stratford, and had a micro loan program to help women starting or upgrading a small business. It is no longer in operation. It had four offices across the province and was affiliated with 23 women’s business networks providing information resources, skills training and had a biannual conference attended by over 300 women. They were the only ones providing such a service in Ontario said Executive Director, Carol Rock. Carol and Liz Wagner, the co-founders of WRED got together a group of 12 women from across the province interested in rural economic development. They had a conference in 1993 and came up with 75 strategies for increasing rural economic development, especially as it pertained to women. WRED was founded shortly after to implement those strategies. In the early 1990’s it was the women who were more interested in small, on-farm businesses while men were insistent that they should be able to survive on what they’re paid on their primary product said Carol. That meant that there were still strong lines between farm and town, agriculture and rural business. Those lines began to blur thanks to groups like WRED.
There were more than 2,000 women who regularly attended the WRED Meetings and about a quarter were paid members of WRED. Memberships and fees for services made up a part of WRED’s budget, as does funding for government programs such as the Trillium Foundation and from Industry Canada. WRED was a charitable organization so it received money, that way too, in sponsorships. WRED also signed a memorandum of understanding with OMAFRA although Carol saw the role of government agencies and non-profit organizations as different. Non-profits were the most economical way of delivering some services, as they weren’t encumbered by the mechanisms of government and aren’t needed to extract a profit, like a private business, she said. However, she said that most of the focus on recent OMAFRA restructuring was due to the loss of core agriculture services, the loss of help for organizations, meeting rooms and aid in photocopying and mailing was also damaging. Volunteers were already tapped into quite heavily.
With the EBWN, many members were just starting a small business of their own and most had no previous business experience so there was a lot to learn. Many of the businesses were also of a non-traditional nature, often home or farm-based, and so there was no other obvious business related organizations which seemed like a natural fit for this group. Among the business owners who became involved with this local group were: organic farmers (McSmiths), a home-based jam and candle making business (Debbie McCallum, also located on a farm), a blueberry farm (Irene Puddester), a fruit and vegetable market (Joy Westlaken), several alternative health practitioners (massage, holistic, health), a bed and breakfast (Heather Miklos), crafts persons who made clothes, quilts, and pottery, a Rhea farmer (Mary Pfeffer), who was in the process of working with the University of Guelph to develop health products from Rhea oil and proteins, a goat farmer who was making goat’s milk soaps (Aniko Varpalotai and Cecilia Preyra) a furniture upholsterer (Yvonne Brookes), a music teacher (Sharon Little) and photographer/greeting card maker (Gail McNaughton), a dried flower grower, cosmetics salesperson (Mary Sanderson), artist and financial planners and accountants. All had in common that they lived in Elgin County, primarily in the smaller rural communities which spread across many miles. Some had full-time jobs and were just getting initiated into the joys and difficulties of operating a small business. Others were looking to their small business as a new start and the provider of enough income to live on.
At early meetings they brainstormed about the needs and issues facing small businesses and produced an agenda of topics they wanted to discuss as a group. Some of these meetings were set aside for sharing personal experiences and learning from one another. Other meetings featured guests: experts in certain fields. Most meetings were held at the homes/businesses of the members and this way they were able to see first hand where one another lived and view the products of group members. Other meetings were organized at local restaurants and coffee shops, in part to support local businesses, but also to make it a more formal social event too.
Some of the topics that emerged as common issues included: marketing, advertising, developing a business plan, financial planning and retirement planning, tourism and the opportunities available in the County to promote their businesses and products, “show and tell” nights where they talked about and demonstrated their products/services and got feedback from fellow businesswomen. Also at each meeting the co-ordinators relayed news from WRED, gave out newsletters and encouraged the group to take out individual memberships in WRED. The EBWN pooled their own business resources, and the Shedden Library agreed to create a space for these books and videos for the use of the EBWN members.
The EBWN could probably best be characterized by the sharing that went on at each meeting, by the non-threatening environment which many of the women commented on, by the absence of cut-throat competition that many feared from a business organization, the support and informal exchanges that occurred even between meetings, and the general helpfulness and usefulness of the meetings. They met every 6-8 weeks. There was a small Planning Committee which took the ideas and developed an agenda, organizing hosts, speakers and refreshments for each gathering. New members were welcomed and encouraged, some spin-offs took place with some members forming alliances with the help of WRED, and others organized an annual business showcase in Dutton where the members, and others (mostly women) showed and promoted their businesses and products to the public.
The group celebrated one another’s successes, members brainstormed if a fellow member had a problem or difficulty, they brought resources, which they have found along the way, to the attention of one another, they purchased bulk products together for a better price and they promoted one another’s products and services and tried to support each others businesses if they were in need of a product or service. Members said that they learned at least one new thing at each meeting, that they looked forward to the opportunity to discuss mutual interests, and they become friends and colleagues in many ways, and have developed their own smaller networks of individuals who they worked with and whose products they use, sell and promote through their own businesses. As women they also shared the stresses, pressures and joys which are unique to women in society. The EBWN was seen to be particularly valuable and valued in this respect as it was women only and therefore a comfortable and comforting place to gather and feel less inhibited about questions, problems and successes than in a larger and mixed environment.
Among the issues that the members have raised and that the EBWN continues to address are:
Not being taken seriously as a woman in business
Expectations of women who have employees, and who are doing sales and marketing – on-going stereotypes
A lack of familiarity with or access to computers
The benefits of home and community based business
The stresses of time and multiple roles re: family, children, and expectations of spouse