Not long after my family and I moved from Toronto to Stratford, Ontario, I received a promotion at work. After congratulating me, my husband’s first question was, “Oh, are we going to have to move back to Toronto?”

“Are you kidding?” I replied. “Babe, you have a career [he’s a registered nurse]. This is just a job.”

Almost three years after that conversation I was at a different company and was returning to work after a maternity leave. This time, however, I was with an organization that supported me as an employee and an asset by enabling me to be a part of the Women’s Executive Network’s inaugural Wisdom II mentoring program.

My time in the program proved very valuable to me. I learned how to change my language, mindset and future from the perspective of “working in a job” to “building a career.” I learned how to assess my skills, strengths and weaknesses in an environment that was supportive, encouraging and, in many ways, a soft place to land. I made friendships that last to this day, and I found a network of inspiring women, from all walks of life and with a range of working experiences, who were willing to share, mentor and empower.

Not all groups are effective though, and not all gatherings are like that soft place to land. Bring up the issue of women’s networking groups, and you’ll get a different response from just about everyone you ask.

Case in point: in the ’90s, the Toronto chapter of Webgrrls (subsequently known as Digital Eve before it officially closed), at the time the second or third largest internationally, was notorious for being a place where there was no patience for any conversation considered “off topic,” i.e., life. “Brilliance, sanity, camaraderie, that’s what the women in tech organizations should have been and never have been,” said Melanie Baker, Community Manager, Developer Relations, at RIM and a former member of Webgrrls. She now finds her support system in a group of women that split off from that original collective and still correspond through email.

Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify recently shared with me that she never really availed herself of women-specific groups, in part because there weren’t many groups in existence in her field and she was one of the few female executives at her level. When I asked about her mentors and how she learned to be a successful business leader, she said, “My father, for sure. And, I did learn what kind of boss I didn’t want to be by example, unfortunately, from a boss I had once. He was a bully and I didn’t want to ever treat people that way.” Talking about the impact of women’s groups, Carol told me that she hopes to see groups do more than just meet and gab, groups that have a real impact in their communities.

When asked what she saw as some of the limits of women’s groups, Christine Tutssel, VP of Sales at Axonify observed that some women’s groups forget to give back to the leaders they seek out. “Carol [Leaman] is so successful, so everyone wants her at their speaking events,” she said. “What these groups forget sometimes is to provide value to the speakers as well.”

On the other hand, Angelique Mohring, a former executive with OpenText, entrepreneur (she’s the president of GAIN), and the chair of the Waterloo Women in Technology (WatWIT) Board got involved with WatWIT “to meet other like-minded women who enjoy life, laugh, are intelligent and influential,” she says. “I believe in my heart that Waterloo has something special and WatWIT can help our local and global community – and our economy – all of which is very important to me.”

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During a Women in Wireless event hosted by MobileMonday at MaRS last October, Charlotte Burke, then senior VP of HP Mobile, shared that she has a network of friends who are very successful female executives, so she never joined another public network of women. “I wouldn’t do it at the exclusion of anything else.”

Ginny Dybenko, current executive director of the University of Waterloo Stratford Campus, and someone with a long background in both finance and technology, has often found herself as the only woman in the room at the executive level. She actively sought out that network of women throughout her career, for both personal and professional support. Asked why she’s so passionate about networking and why she spends so much time mentoring women, she said, “It’s always pay it forward,” she said, “because you’re going to pay it forward and you don’t have to wait until you’re my age. Every woman standing knows other women younger than they are, so start mentoring today.”

From Girls in Tech Toronto to CanWIT, from WXNetwork to all the women-centric groups found on Meetup, I’d say that the best piece of advice comes Stephanie MacKendrick, president of Canadian Women in Communications, who noted, “You have to follow your own interests and you have to be true to yourself.”

For me, my network of women has had a tangible impact on my personal development and my professional career. I know that I would not be where I am today without learning the lessons that I did then, and continue to learn from hearing others share their stories. Yet, my story is only one among millions. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject and invite you to share your stories below.

Karen Schulman Dupuis

Karen Schulman Dupuis was the manager of business development in the ICT sector at MaRS. She has worked with startups and entrepreneurs for 15 years in information and communications technology, and brings together years of practical experience in the fields of sales, education, operations, business analysis, project management and marketing communications to tell compelling stories and generate results. See more…