Some networking turns out to be a polite exchange of business cards and some turns into business or community collaborations.
Carole Ann Penney, of Providence, has founded both a new business and a quilting guild while networking through the Lady Project, a combination professional development, social connection and all-for-one, one-for-all community that has one basic membership guideline – no men allowed.
Penney has a full-time job that’s important to her – she’s director of operations for the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. She’s enriched her work by connecting with others in the nonprofit community through the Lady Project, which she joined in 2012.
The Lady Project began in 2011, has 250 members in its Providence chapter, and has expanded to chapters in New Haven, Conn., and Boston. The women’s organization celebrated putting down roots in bartered workspace with an “office warming” at its new Chestnut Street location in Providence on July 17.
“I’ve been to networking events and they can often feel very forced or even intimidating,” said Penney. “My aim when I went to the Lady Project was to connect with like-minded, ambitious, creative and entrepreneurial women.
“When I went to my first event at the Lady Project, it was unlike any networking event I’d ever been to before,” said Penney. “I walked into a room full of energetic women with high aspirations who were interested in meeting each other and wanted to support each other in anything we’re doing.”
From connections made at that event and engagement with members of the Lady Project, Penney has launched two new ventures.
“I started my own business as a life coach in the past year, while I’ve been a member of the Lady Project,” said Penney. “It’s absolutely been a factor in getting a new business off the ground, because it’s tough to get capital. I’ve bartered with a social media expert, as well as a personal stylist who helped me think about my brand and select outfits to appear on TV and to lead a workshop.”
Penney is the president of the Rhode Island Modern Quilt Guild, which she launched with a colleague she met at the first Lady Project event she attended.
Lady Project founder Sierra Barter said the essential nature of the group has filled a gap, even amid busy lives and groups for networking for every specialty.
“What I hear all the time, especially in bigger cities like Boston, is, ‘I thought I was alone.’ Women can come by, have a glass of wine, talk about work or kids or whatever,” said Barter. “A lot of women, especially ones who have children, call it ‘my time.’ ”
And that’s one reason membership is exclusive.
“Men are not allowed,” said Barter. “I’ve gotten some very public backlash for that.”
Occasionally, men are invited, as they were for the office warming.
The new office is a substantial step for the Lady Project. The group had previously used shared space at the Hatch Entrepreneurship Center on Weybosset Street in Providence, but they couldn’t store things there.
“We have tons of material now and it’s mostly been in my guest room and basement,” said Barter, whose full-time job is social media coordinator for Johnson & Wales University. “We have notebooks, Sharpies, Post-It pads, books, banners.”
The new, more permanent Lady Project space is an office area with two desks at Batchhaus, the offices of Batchbook, a 7-year-old tech company that develops custom relationship management software for small businesses. Lady Project isn’t being charged for the space.
“We have more space than we need, to allow ourselves room to grow,” said Batchbook CEO Pamela O’Hara. “I don’t think of it as giving the Lady Project the space free of charge. It’s sort of an informal trading of resources that works very well for startup businesses.”
The Lady Project’s roots in Providence are the foundation for the expanding group, which keeps annual membership at an affordable $35 to $50 a year, mostly to fund costs to sponsor workshops and events.
The all-volunteer group, including one or two city managers for each location where there is a chapter, is a nonprofit, awaiting its final paperwork on that status. •