Chugiak-Eagle River women connect through business
Chugiak-Eagle River businesswomen are finding strength in numbers.
On the evening of International Women’s Day, a group of them gathered in a sunny Chugiak salon to network and socialize. The women work in construction, skincare and finance, for companies large and small, but they share a common affiliation – membership in Chugiak-Eagle River Women in Business (CERWIB).
A tight-knit part of the local business community, the group represents a cross-section of female entrepreneurs from around Chugiak-Eagle River.
At first, there were only a few members. But nearly 20 years after the group formed, it’s blossomed into something much larger, with dozens of members, monthly luncheons, social events and opportunities for professional development.
“This fills a niche that nobody else can,” said Lisa Munson, CERWIB president. “This is empowering. This is supportive.”
Co-owner of Accurate Framing Systems, an Eagle River-based general contractor, Munson first became involved with the group about 15 years ago. She found it provided much-needed support after a transition from corporate life to small business ownership.
“You start feeling like you’re in it on your own – like nobody’s really going through the same challenges,” she said. “But when I was invited, I had the opportunity to go, ‘Oh, I’m not in it by myself.’”
Through the networking group, Munson said she had the opportunity to connect with other female entrepreneurs who could provide valuable experience and insight. Monthly luncheons feature speakers covering topics from business planning to marketing to tax preparation. A scholarship fund founded in 2011 aims to help women further their educations.
“It’s been a learning curve – people come and go – but the relationships that have been built are solid,” Munson said.
Nationwide, the percentage of woman-owned businesses continues to rise, according to the National Women’s Business Council. As of 2012, women owned more than a third of all nonfarm and privately held companies in the country – up from around 29 percent five years before, the NWBC reported.
In Chugiak-Eagle River, CERWIB membership fluctuates year by year. It’s been as high as 87, Munson said. Currently, in the middle of a new year’s membership drive, she said it’s a little more than half that. Last year, membership spanned the spectrum, representing everyone from the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Small Business Association and the University of Alaska Anchorage to independent local artists and retailers.
“There will probably come a point where we’ll need to meet in a much larger area than Pizza Man,” said Melissa Izatt, a local Country Financial agent who joined the women’s networking group about 10 years ago.
“There’s been a phenomenal membership increase since we first started.”
The group plays an important role in her business, helping generate valuable referrals, she said. In a community like Chugiak-Eagle River, word-of-mouth accounts for about 90 percent of her business.
“For me, it’s the lifeline to my business – to meet new people, and to build relationships with those people,” Izatt said.
Besides the monthly speaker luncheons, the Women in Business group has hosted networking events at a local bakery; a thrift store; a pizzeria; an Elks Lodge. At the March 8 mixer at Chugiak’s Gorgeous Hair Design, members mingled over drinks and appetizers provided by a woman-owned Chugiak catering company. The hair salon, owned by a woman, shares a building with a door company owned by another woman.
“It really doesn’t matter how much money you’re making or what kind of product you have, because we all have the same challenges,” Munson said.
There’s no competition within the group, she said; just support, encouragement and education.
For Deanna Jackson, the group was an outlet for growth in a new career field. After 15 years working in dentistry, her employer retired and Jackson decided to pursue a lifelong dream, go back to school and become an aesthetician, she said. Her husband was deployed at the time; Jackson spent all her free time studying. It was tough, she said, but it paid off. Today, she runs Polished Beauty Studio, currently co-located at Gorgeous Hair Design.
She’s been in business for about four years and involved with the women’s business group for around three.
“Just developing those relationships is really the big thing for me,” Jackson said.
Relationships between local businesswomen are at the heart of the organization. Members want to network and talk about the real issues facing their industries, Munson said.
“What we’re starting now is trying to do more mentoring,” she said. “I think that’s important to mentor other women in whatever challenges they have.”
Contact Star reporter Kirsten Swann at firstname.lastname@example.org