Editor note:  This is the first post in our new “Ask the Expert” series.  We will post answers to questions from entrepreneurs like yourself to our group of experts in different fields.  First up is Darlene Ellison.  Today’s post is the first of four from Darlene.

What are some advantages of having a women’s-only networking group? Do men and women network differently?

The idea for founding Lakewood-area Women in Business (LWIB) and later two additional WIB groups (Park Cities/North Dallas WIB and Plano WIB) came from my observations of so many of my male associates and friends seeming to “do business” (and some pretty significant business deals!) in social settings. For them it was the 19th hole after a round of golf, or a men’s locker room or card room after a fitness workout. That is what worked best for them, in their social settings and on their schedule. I wanted to find a way to connect women that came natural to their way of “networking” and on a timeline that fit with the professional woman who was juggling her business, her family, her philanthropic involvement and, if she was lucky, even her “me time.” Thus, the WIB Networking Socials were created with a mantra of “Make friends first, and the business will follow!” The groups are community-based (thus their titles) so we are promoting keeping our dollars in our respective communities, but also have moving dates/days of the weeks each month to accommodate the busiest of schedules. The goal was to design an INCLUSIVE group where women could have a glass of wine, enjoy light appetizers, and build new friendships that, hopefully, would result in an expanded business network. Nine years later, the WIB Program is still going strong! As for the men vs women…I have never really viewed it as a “right way vs. wrong way” thing: I do think women and men approach the world differently, approach our businesses differently and build business relationships differently. Different is what make the world go ‘round!

Why is it important for business owners to join community-based networking circles?

So many business owners feel so stretched with their day-to-day operations that they feel like they have no energy or time left for networking. The truth is, a business owner IS THE BRAND and their business brand is an extension OF THEM. When you look at it from that perspective, it’s easy to see that other employees can assist with operations, but it is very important for the business owner to be the face of the business. Especially today, when so many communities have embraced the “support local” concept, a business owner being a good neighbor and being readily-identified by her community members can boost the amount of folks who patronize the business. In our WIB Programs, we even have the occasional business owner who comes solely to our Networking Socials to be re-energized by the natural energy and idea-sharing that occurs when you have a room filled with entrepreneurial-minded women!

Is it best to avoid networking until my business is already off the ground, or can I start during the planning phase?

It really depends upon the type of networking group you are looking to join. As for our WIB groups, it is common for women to talk about their “day job” and then share with other attendees their “side business” they are trying to build. I like to think of it as Women in Business doing their “market research” in a room filled with potential mentors and patrons of the business. Attending networking groups, especially those with seasoned entrepreneurs and senior leadership, can help get some of the most basic questions answered and connections made for the start-up. Many of our conversations with each other begin with, “How did you…”

Veritex Bank’s Women in Business page: https://veritexbank.com/community-events/women-in-business

Darlene Ellison has over 25 years of experience in the combined fields of child psychology and business, as well as serving as an avid community volunteer. Years as a Development Consultant, as well as her 7-year-old role as the Vice President of Business Development/Community Development Executive for Veritex Community Bank, have allowed her to create a unique business development strategic plan that focuses on niche positioning and high touch customer service. She is also the founder and coordinator of three award-winning community Women In Business organizations that help women business owners and executives gain personal and professional growth. As an extension of these programs, she has created the Future Women In Business internship program for college-aged women. Darlene was honored with the 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year Award by the Greater East Dallas Chamber of Commerce, was named a 2011 Dallas Business Journal “Women in Business” honoree and, most recently, was awarded the “Pete Sessions Leadership Award” for outstanding years of service to the Greater East Dallas Chamber of Commerce. Darlene currently serves in her second year as Chair of the Chamber, is on the Board for the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau and serves as an Advisor on the Board of the Lakewood Service League. Darlene’s book, “The Predator Next Door…Detect, Protect and Recover from Betrayal” has been awarded both a 2009 IPPY Award Gold Medal in True Crime and a 2010 Next Indie Award Gold Medal in Autobiography. Darlene speaks all over the country on child abuse prevention, as an advocate for victims of child and family violence and as a motivational proponent of overcoming obstacles!