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Women Helping Women: NWA Groups Are NetworkingLock Icon

5 min read

Meredith Lowry has heard a lot in her 15 years as a patent attorney in northwest Arkansas.

A little more than a year ago, Lowry had heard enough. A client who wanted to start a business backed into her proposal by belittling herself.

“She was sitting in the same chair you are and said, ‘You’re going to think I’m stupid,’ and then started talking to me about her project,” said Lowry, who is of counsel in the Rogers office of the Wright Lindsey Jennings law firm.

That a client feared having her idea dismissed or ridiculed lit a fire under Lowry. “I got up after and walked down the hall, made a phone call and said this is what we need to do. Then I did tons of research. There was never really a question that this is what we were going to do.”

What the law firm did, at Lowry’s urging, was create Woman-Run, an initiative that brings together business leaders and prospective businesswomen for networking and informative events.

Lowry said she was positive Woman-Run was needed and was immediately proved correct. The first event in February 2019 was standing-room only and, soon after, Wright Lindsey Jennings’ Little Rock office began holding Woman-Run events in central Arkansas.

Woman-Run held events in northwest Arkansas and Little Rock every two months through October until supply and demand accelerated the schedule to monthly. The firm pays for the venue — Woman-Run outgrew the law office’s conference room — and none of the speakers have asked to be paid for their presentations.

“A lot of people want women to succeed and most of the speakers are in that boat,” Lowry said. “At one point someone asked me if we were going to run out of speakers. I am never going to run out of speakers.”

The guest speakers share their insight and expertise about a certain business subject, but the events are also a gathering place for women to mingle with other women, sharing business tips and ideas. Lowry said some attendees have generated business through interactions at the meetings.

“It has filled a need,” Lowry said. “We have people who have been to every single event. We have people who are upset when events are on days they can’t make it.

“The goal was to build a network of women who are running their business or inventing, so that they could talk to each other. And also be in the room with people they need to be in the room with.”

Money Issues

Lowry said there is a lot of talk about money at Woman-Run events because, in entrepreneurship, funding is a critical component for everything that follows.

Martha Londagin, a longtime banker in northwest Arkansas, was hired as an executive consultant at Startup Junkie last summer to run the company’s Kiva hub. Kiva is a crowdfunding platform that offers interest-free, fee-free loans to underserved and minority candidates.

Londagin said Kiva Northwest Arkansas has provided four loans to date, all to women. The loans range from $3,000 to $6,000.

Women-owned businesses qualify as minority-owned in the state of Arkansas. Londagin said it’s disappointing that just 24% of businesses in the state are owned by women.

“We target all underserved, people who are historically underserved,” Londagin said. “What we want to serve is the historically discriminated against in the financial arena.

“It has a ripple effect. It is the concept of a rising tide lifts all boats. If 50% of the people in our state are women, why aren’t 50% of the businesses owned by women? In 2020, we know that women and men are equally capable of running small businesses.”

Lowry and Londagin know that, but said many women have to overcome cultural influences that have caused them to believe otherwise. It is expressed in the clients who apologize to Lowry before saying they want to start a business.

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That lack of confidence can compound when a woman has to go to a bank for a business loan or interact with business contacts. Groups such as Woman-Run and Amy Robinson’s Tribe of Women help to dispel some of the fear and feelings of isolation.

“The chamber of commerce sometimes can be somewhat scary if you have never been in business; banks can seem scary,” Lowry said. “We have these community partners that are at the events so it humanizes the resources available and makes it where anyone who is thinking of dipping a toe into business can say, ‘I can do this, too.’”

Jeannette Balleza Collins, the entrepreneurial development director for the Northwest Arkansas Council, co-founded Grit Studios in Bentonville, which is a co-working space for startup businesses. Grit Studios is a sponsor of Woman-Run.

“Women want to talk about money,” Balleza Collins said. “What Meredith has done beautifully is creating these environments where she gives people permission to ask questions and share their own stories. It’s so valuable to meet others, to have a community around you.”

Brave Space

Amy Robinson, who started Tribe of Women in 2016, worked for the Company Club in Bentonville this past year. The Company Club was a members’ only networking group that had a downtown meeting location, but the club closed after a couple of months when the primary investor pulled out for non-business reasons.

The Company Club was popular while it existed, Robinson said, showing the strong need for a program of women helping women. Tribe of Women is the same idea, without a membership to join or a centralized headquarters, creating a “brave space” where women can interact with fewer filters.

“Women resource groups are fantastic; women supporting women are wonderful,” Robinson said. “The reason the concept of women helping women is resonating with me is because I didn’t see it happening in day-to-day life, and I didn’t see it happening in the corporations I was consulting for. Women listen to each other differently; we go a little deeper and to a more personal level, especially when it comes to how we are treated in the workplace and work-life integration, taking care of families. We can go there on an empathetic level with each other.”

Robinson said women are still overcoming discrimination from decades and centuries ago. Women have only voted in the United States for 100 years, and single women could be denied a credit card until 1974.

“It goes back to the cultural influences, especially in the space of business and finance; those are both spaces by men for men,” Robinson said. “That’s the challenge, that women going into business and finance have this expectation of knowing what they are doing and doing it right and doing it like a man.

“When [a woman’s] perspective isn’t listened to or respected, we tend to shut down. We tend to think we are supposed to have all the answers and we don’t. We tend not to ask the questions that we really need to be asking.”

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