For many of us, the word "networking" conjures images of people milling around a conference hall wearing a name tag, making small talk and exchanging business cards.
But a new kind of networking is on the rise —and female executives are at the helm.
They're known as "stiletto networks," and the women behind them have been known to ink multimillion-dollar business deals.
We sat down with Pamela Ryckman, an investment-strategist-turned-journalist and the author of "Stiletto Network: Inside the Women's Power Circles That Are Changing the Face of Business," to get her insider's take on the phenomenon.
LearnVest: How did you come across this trend?
Pamela Ryckman: It started a few years ago when I attended a women’s conference in California while working on a piece for The New York Times. I walked into a room of very successful women in beautiful dresses and cute shoes who defied the age-old stereotypes of high-powered ladies. They weren’t in pinstripe suit—they weren’t trying to dress, sound and act like guys.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
I wanted to know what enabled all of these women to succeed professionally—and remain comfortable in their own skin. When one of them mentioned her dinner group, I asked who the guests were, and she listed several high-level female executives from companies like eBay, Amazon, Verisign and Marimba. They called themselves “Babes in Boyland.”
I knew that I was onto something, but I didn’t quite know what it was. I'd soon find that all of these groups—stretching from New York City to Anchorage, Alaska—form a powerful nationwide movement.
And what makes these groups unique is the intimacy involved. The women often meet at one of their homes over dinner and wine. And beyond discussing business, they also talk about their fears and their families—and even throw wedding and baby showers for one another.
The book is a testament to the power of its thesis. When I first began interviewing these women, they realized that I was onto something too. I talked to women who connected me to their friends, and so on. It became a starburst. What these women had done for each other, they did for me, allowing me to take the next step in my career: writing this book.
That said, when I asked specifically about the transactions that have come out of stiletto networks, there was pushback. No one was trying to shake down other chicks for connections—they were doing these incredible things for each other because they cared. So this book is a love story disguised as a business story. It's about female friendships and connections—and there just happens to be a massive money trail.
It's also a story of global social change. I’ve charted billions of dollars of transactions in companies founded and funded through stiletto networks, as well as observed self-made wealth going toward nonprofits and political candidates. These networks are not only propelling women upward in business—there’s also a massive trickle-down helping other women and girls, which I love!
There are a number of women who said that the presence of men at their dinner groups really changed the tenor of the meeting. Some groups have found it helpful, some haven’t.
What do you think of Sheryl Sandberg's message for women in the workforce to "lean in"?
I’d say that my message and Sandberg’s are complementary, not competing. What I’ve seen in all of this research is that there’s no one definition of success. "Leaning in" is fantastic for some people, but being CEO isn’t necessarily best for all women. What’s so powerful and refreshing about stiletto networks is that the women really validate each other’s decisions. It’s not about getting to the next rung of the ladder, but living your best life—whatever that means for you.
RELATED: Make More Than a CEO With This Job
Do you think it's beneficial to include men in these gatherings?
There are a number of women who said that, in a funny way, the presence of men at their dinner groups really changed the tenor of the meeting. Some groups have found it helpful, some haven’t. My view is that it’s a good thing to bring men into the fold on occasion. Men are still in most positions of power, so it makes no sense to cut yourself off from half the population. At the same time, one of the things that makes these groups so special is that the women feel free to embrace their femininity. You need enough time with just girls for bonds to develop.
The stiletto networks you discovered had creative names. What were your favorites?
SLUTS (Successful Ladies Under Tremendous Stress), Chicks in Charge, Power Bitches, Brazen Hussies. They’re reappropriating historically sexist terms, but they have great senses of humor, so they're laughing all the time.
What advice would you give women who’d like to start their own stiletto networks?
When you read the book, you see that each network is unique—there are no hard rules. But I did find that the most successful groups had the following commonalities:
- Think about diversity. Members from a variety of fields keep each other thinking fresh, and increase each others’ spheres of influence. But diversity must be balanced by shared experience.
- Use technology. Women are the dominant users of social media. They should always make a conscious effort to continue the conversation after dinner through online networks. Share!
- Systematize asks and offers. Women traditionally have trouble asking for help, since they don’t want to appear weak or impose. Set aside five to 10 minutes at every dinner to talk about what each woman needs and how they can help one another.
- Play with boys. It's nice to be pro-women, but nobody works in a vacuum. None of these powerful women got to where they are by staying in their little cul-de-sacs, with their own kind. Connect your peers with other powerful men.
RELATED: This Helps Women Earn More
So how does this kind of networking surpass more traditional networking functions?
A lot of people have asked me whether stiletto networks are just the women’s version of the old boys’ network. But these groups are very different; they’re truly based in friendship. You want to go the extra mile because you genuinely believe in these other people. When you go to a more traditional networking event, like a conference, you can feel that you’re surrounded by cardboard cutouts. Ultimately, ballrooms are only effective if they pave the way to boardrooms.