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Is networking for me?

If you are considering starting up a business, or if you have one already you might find yourself thinking about networking with others. Networking might not be something you considered before or know much about. ‘Berkshire Woman’ spoke to one of the biggest Women’s Networks in the UK’ The Athena Network’. We wanted to know what all the fuss is about and why anyone would consider meeting with others, especially when time can be quite a luxury for anyone running their own business. So, I went to interview Juliette Smith – Athena’s Regional Director for Reading.

B.W. – Would you please first tell us a bit about “The Athena Network”. What and where is it?

J.S. – The Athena Network aims to bring like-minded women together who are passionate about growing and developing their business or their employer’s business. We have three main aims: To provide opportunities to make strategic connections with professionals in a wide range of industry sectors, to develop members’ business skills through a choice of interactive workshops and training courses and to encourage women in business to inspire and support each other for greater success.We do this by offering members the opportunity to attend a fun, yet focussed, networking lunch meeting each month. To ensure there is no conflict of interest, each group only allows one person per profession to join. Athena’s Head Office is in Watford and Regional Offices are run by franchisees (Regional Directors). There are 17 Athena groups in Berkshire alone, run by five Regional Directors, of which I am one. There are 120 groups in the UK. We have recently launched in Singapore and are planning to launch in the USA later this year.

B.W. – What is your role in the Network?

J.S. – I am the Regional Director for Reading and run four groups in the town.The Athena Network was founded by Jacqueline Rogers in 2006.

B.W. – Why would any business woman wish to meet up with your members? What are the immediate benefits they might expect?

J.S. – I joined The Athena Network myself (the Maidenhead group) over two years ago as a Relationship Coach. I joined at the end of my first meeting. The energy in the room was palpable – women were enthusiastic, supportive and very friendly. I had only ever networked in London before (as an Executive Coach) in a mixed environment and had really not enjoyed it. Athena was completely different. The difference, I feel and I’ve heard many other women say this, is business networking with women, because of the quality of the conversations, the relationships andthe support. It is friendly, easy and it works. Also The Athena method works – a focussed and structured meeting with an informal feel to it – supportive, yet unpressurised. I’ve heard my members describe themselves as feeling “energised and motivated” after a meeting as well as “inspired”. Athena is not just about business referrals – our members become more confident, countless new business skills and great friendships are built. The business alliances are just part of the great experience we have.

B.W. – Do you do any kind of mentoring?

J.S. – At Athena we are passionate about wanting to help our members get the most out of networking and their membership with us. At every meeting the Regional Director runs a Networking Strategy Training – a session design to encourage the members to develop their networking skills and help them focus their networking activities.There is also a Business Development Training session – a presentation given by an expert in a specific area (perhaps marketing, finance or business strategy for instance) that will help women with their business growth. As part of the membership, we also offer ‘Athena Member Training’ – a free half day workshop available to all members to help them maximise their membership and make the most out of the Monthly Minute (at every Athena meeting we invite everyone to speak for a minute about themselves and what business contacts or referrals they are seeking).

B.W. – Do you have any annual conferences or gatherings with lectures, workshops etc.? Something that potential members can visit and try before they make their mind up?

J.S. – I and various Athena members run numerous workshops designed to support and educate members in developing themselves and their businesses. We have an annual ‘Athena International Conference’ – this year called Inspire 2012 (Friday 11th May in Windsor!). There will be inspirational advice and guidance from numerous speakers – many who have overcome obstacles to build their business and careers. In addition there will be networking opportunities, education, training and plenty of inspiration.

B.W. – How many members do you have and how much is the membership?

J.S. – The Athena Network has a membership of around 2600. In Reading alone there are over 60 members and at most of our meetings there are a handful of visitors who are thinking of joining. Membership for the year costs just £235.

B.W. – Where are your usual meeting places?

J.S. – Athena Meetings are in smart and professional venues throughout Berkshire. We hold our lunches at locations that ladies feel comfortable discussing business. Venues for instance include ‘Sonning Golf Club’, ‘The Reading Lake Hotel’ and ‘Mal Maison’ in Central Reading.

B.W. – Are you planning to expand to other towns in Berkshire? Windsor for example?

J.S. – There are groups all over Berkshire in addition to Reading – from Newbury to Windsor.

B.W. – Would you like to give one piece of advice to potential new businesswomen?

J.S. – Build relationships – before you need them! Networking is about building relationships. Building a network of people around you who you know and respect and can trust, is a great way to generate contacts and consequently business. Being part of a group that meets regularly gives you the opportunity to get to know each other so you build those invaluable relationships.

B.W. – Thanks!

At that we part our ways. As I walk back to my car I catch myself thinking: “Shall I join this network?”
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Athena Network meeting

Athena Network meeting

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