BY TERRI FINCH HAMILTON
PHOTOS: TJ HAMILTON
Branding expert Connie Sweet has some business advice for you, woman to woman.
Steer clear of those business card companies that offer pre-made designs anyone can choose.
“You don’t want the same business card someone else is using,” Sweet says. “You could attend an event and discover three people have the same business card design as you do — a yoga instructor, a hair stylist and a dog groomer.
“If you don’t recognize the importance of your business image, how can I feel confident you will provide the individualized service I would appreciate?”
That’s one kind of insider tip you’ll find at a gathering of WISE women.
Sweet co-founded WISE — Women in Successful Enterprises — in 2009 with friend and fellow business owner Floriza Genautis.
Both are successful entrepreneurs with impressive resumes. They decided to round up some other successful women to see if they could bolster each other.
“There are a lot of organizations that serve start-up companies and offer classes, but once you get past that start-up phase, you no longer get that level of help or collaboration,” Sweet says.
WISE is designed for women who already have their business feet wet — but who want to continue to succeed and grow. It’s a “bridge organization,” Sweet says, that helps women business owners gain certification, corporate connections, government contracts and networking.
The group has worked with the Center for Empowerment & Economic Development and introduces members to the Women’s Business Enterprise Council, an initiative of CEED that provides opportunities for nationally recognized certification of businesses that are at least 51 percent owned, operated and controlled by a woman or women.
Women who own businesses have interests and needs that not all women share, Sweet says. “Women’s conversations often center around families and children,” Sweet says. “But for business owners, a good portion of our lives is about our businesses. When we meet people at PTA meetings, we’re often just not on the same page.”
WISE offers an opportunity for women in business to connect with each other.
“We can gain a lot of information from each other,” Sweet says. “We share resources, share tips. We gain so much from each other. That’s a powerful thing for women who often feel they’re out at sea, on their own.”
Maureen Fitzgerald Penn felt that way when she left her job as marketing and development director for Catholic Charities West Michigan in Muskegon to start her business, Penn & Ink Communications, in 2008.
“I thought, ‘How do I begin this? I’m hanging up my shingle but I don’t have any contacts in Grand Rapids,’” Penn says.
Joining WISE changed all that. Penn met other women business owners, made friends and acquired a few clients.
Now, years later, the group is still valuable, she says.
“Once you’ve been in business a few years, you need to grow,” Penn says. “You have to step out of your comfort zone and approach larger companies with bigger needs. WISE has helped me break down the barriers so I can do that.”
Penn is on the group’s advisory board — they call themselves “advocates” — and helps plan each year’s events.
“We decide on the speakers and events based on our own reality,” she says. “What are the issues we’re facing? What questions do we have? Then we find speakers to address those needs.”
Events set for this year:
- “Common Negotiation Mistakes and How to Avoid Them.” Speaker Penny Rosema, a professional buyer, shares negotiation tips March 12.
- “How to Get in with Community Media.” A panel of media experts shares tips at a gathering at the mlive hub May 7.
- “Building Success from Scratch,” a presentation by award-winning chef and restaurant owner Jenna Arcidiacono from Amore Trattoria Italiana Aug. 20.
Each year WISE also hosts an event designed to give back to the community.
This year they support the American Diabetes Association at a Nov. 5 event.
“We’re reminding other business women that a social conscience should be part of your business,” Penn says.
While there is a cost to attend WISE events (and non-members are welcome, too) it costs nothing to belong to WISE.
“We formed this group just as the Michigan economy was flailing,” Sweet says. “We decided we weren’t going to saddle people with an annual membership fee.”
Sweet and cofounder Genautis met through another organization, Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs.
Sweet is founder of Connection Graphics, LLC in Lansing. She creates distinctive brands that connect with her client’s philosophy and business strategy.
Her resume of graphic design jobs includes time at ad agencies, educational institutions, non-profit organizations, publishing houses and governmental offices.
Genautis is the principal founder of Management Business Solutions, a professional staffing firm specializing in placing candidates in the areas of accounting, finance, human resource, information technology, sales and marketing and engineering.
The tips and resources WISE members share are valuable, Sweet says, but the laughter is pretty great, too.
“What I’ve gained most is friendships,” Sweet says. “This is an open, diverse and welcoming group. And I want women to know that having a successful business is within reach for all of us.”
For more about WISE, including upcoming events, visit wiseconnections.org.