By Sonia Sahney Nagar (Co-Founder & CEO, Smarketplaces)
I can’t take credit for this idea, but I think it’s fantastic. I recently attended Arianna Huffington and Donna Karan’s WIE conference in New York (Women Inspiration Enterprise). My startup, Smarketplaces, was invited to participate in a pitch event that happened at the end of day one, and I decided to show up early (very early) to catch the full day of speakers. It was definitely worth the Sunday morning early-wake-up, the conference brought together an interesting mix of fashionistas, social enterprisers and politicos (within a span of 2-hours I saw the co-founder of Jimmy Choo and Nancy Pelosi speak).

Of the many messages conveyed during the conference, there was one that stuck with me and felt very actionable and relevant for early-stage founders — and it was for enterprising women everywhere to start their own “CEO club”.

Let me explain. In one of the panels, one of the women talked about how early in her career she got together with four like-minded, ambitious, forward-charging, entrepreneurial women and they created their own support group. Once a month these five women all get together on a one hour call. On the call each woman has 10 mins or so to talk about anything — professional, personal, nothing is off limits. It’s kind of like group therapy.

The group provides a safe forum for asking questions and resources for getting help. The women’s jobs and roles have changed over the years, but the group has remained intact, and it has been 5+ years that the self-created mini-network has been in place. The woman on the panel said the network had been invaluable to her at many points in her entrepreneurial adventures…

And I believe it. Networks are critical for early-stage entrepreneurs because at many points startups need outside help; whether it’s a warm introduction to a potential investor, new employees, strategic partners, etc. (Actually almost all careers benefit from networks, but given the intense, compressed timeline most startups operate on it seems more crucial here than in other careers). I think it also helps to have a peer group that is in a similar life-stage as you so you can learn from each other and share tactical advice which might be too detailed to get into with advisers or mentors.

This is one value proposition incubators offer startups, by joining a program you are instantly part of a cohort / peer group that can serve as a network of resources for you. Outside of incubator programs there are a few groups that also provide this type of support (e.g., Founder’s Roundtable, First Growth Venture Network are examples in NYC).

I’m not sure why it never it occurred to me, but there’s no reason to wait or solely depend on acceptance into these pre-formed programs. It’s easier (and may be more meaningful) to form your own. Given the scarcity of women in tech startups (let alone women in the CEO role) this may be easier said than done, but it seems only natural that we should form our own groups and help each other.

Tactically, here are 3 things worth considering if you decide to go this route:

  1. Take your time, find the right people — I’m planning to approach this kind of like dating. I’m hoping to go to events like Women 2.0’s Founder Fridays and put out the vibe (the first NYC event will take place sometime in November). I’ll probably ask for introductions through friends-of-friends and will stalk new female founders on TechCrunch. I’ll go out on coffee dates to get to know people. As with most things in the startup world, it’s paramount to find the right people.
  2. Keep it small — It seems you’ll get the most out of this kind of a thing if you can keep the group small (more time to talk about you :-), all participants get more air time, meetings can be shorter and scheduling also becomes a lot easier).
  3. Commit to a cadence – Lock down a recurring date/time (e.g., 1st Tuesday of every month) otherwise meetings won’t happen.

This is part social experiment and part science experiment. I’m interested to hear how this works out for others and to track this over time. If you’ve already formed a support network on your own, please comment on this post so others can learn what worked/didn’t work for you. And if you’re a CEO of an early-stage New York-based technology startup, look for me at the November NYC Women 2.0 event.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
About the guest blogger: Sonia Sahney Nagar is co-founder and CEO of Smarketplaces, a software service that enables bloggers & publishers to generate new revenue through social commerce. Sonia has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan and a M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. She has previously worked at Amazon, Goldman Sachs and Booz & Co. and participated in Founder Labs NY. Sonia blogs at Smarketplaces or follow her on Twitter at @ssahney and her startup at @smarketplaces.