By Maynara Furquim
WESt, a WeRin partner, is a certified STARTERCENTER NRW for the district of Steinfurt in Germany and is available free of charge to all founders of the region as a neutral point of contact. The consultants support with all questions before and after the foundation.
Since 2009, WESt has had an initiative focused on women entrepreneurs – the Unternehmerinnennetz (translation: women entrepreneurs’ network). They organise regular meetings of women entrepreneurs and freelancers from the Steinfurt district. These informal meetings take place at different locations in the district. The motto is “Strengthening and Networking Regional Forces”. Relevant business topics are presented at the evening meetings or company tours are offered. The main purpose of the meetings is to exchange ideas, get to know each other, discuss and network.
This initiative was documented by WESt and FH Münster as part of the WeRin Webinar Collection. To learn more about this great programme, Maynara Furquim, from FH Münster, talked to Varvara Leinz, one of the organisers of the network.
Maynara: First of all, can you introduce yourself, please?
Varvara: My name is Varvara Leinz, I have been working in the business services department of Wirtschaftsförderungs- und Entwicklungsgesellschaft Steinfurt mbH (WESt) since April 2022. The focus of my work includes advising companies from the district of Steinfurt on the topic of funding, conducting company visits, organising events, and supporting the Unternehmerinnennetzes Kreis Steinfurt – the Steinfurt district’s network of women entrepreneurs.
Maynara: What is so unique about Unternehmerinnennetz?
Varvara: What is special about this event format is the fact that it exclusively brings together entrepreneurially active women from the region. Participation is free of charge and without obligation. The network is open to all interested founders, freelancers, and self-employed women from the Steinfurt district. We continue to develop the format flexibly and are guided by the wishes and suggestions of the participants.
Maynara: Where do your contacts with entrepreneurially active women come from?
Varvara: The contacts come through different channels. For instance, we constantly get to know new founders or businesswomen from the region during our start-up or funding consultations and make them aware of the network. Other contacts come from our communication channels (newsletter, homepage, press releases, social media), “word of mouth” or various events.
Maynara: What are the advantages for the women to be part of it?
Varvara: The participants are given a platform to exchange ideas in a trusted environment with each other and to network with like-minded people. The events also provide a stimulus for personal development and helpful tips for everyday professional life.
Through on-site company visits, the participants get the opportunity to get to know regional companies and increase the awareness of their own companies. This often leads to new ideas and opportunities for cooperation with other women entrepreneurs from the network.
Maynara: WESt organises up to 4 large events per year for women entrepreneurs, founders, and freelancers. Could you tell me a bit more about how these events are organised?
Varvara: When organising the events, we usually take up suggestions and ideas from the network, especially when it comes to the topics for the presentations or the locations. As the business development agency for the district of Steinfurt, we like to be present at different locations in the region and work closely with local partners.
Often women from the network approach us and ask if they can give a presentation or hold a workshop. We are always open to such suggestions because the stimulus from the network for the network helps us to draw attention to expertise from the region. With the company visits, we are first approached by interested women who want to invite the network to their premises. We design the programme of events based on these requests.
The agenda for our women entrepreneurs’ meetings usually includes professional stimulus, company tours, a so-called “cooperation exchange” with short introductions of interested participants, and time for exchange among each other. Ideally, the participants gain interesting insights into a particular topic as well as new contacts at our events.
Maynara: How many people from WESt get involved to prepare and deliver the events?
Varvara: My colleague Yasemin Örlü Köksal and I are mainly responsible for the preparation and implementation of the network events. We are also supported by colleagues from the public relations and secretariat team. On average, up to five people are involved in the organisation, application, implementation, and follow-up of the women entrepreneurs’ meetings.
Maynara: How many participants do the events usually have? What is their profile? Are they only from the network database or can someone from outside participate?
Varvara: Our network experienced a “reboot” in autumn 2022. Since then, four events have taken place. Each event has averaged just over 50 people. Participants mainly include women founders and established women entrepreneurs from diverse sectors. The focus is on the service sector. We have both younger and older participants and women of other nationalities.
Each time, new contacts or contacts from outside our network also take part in the meetings. We are very interested in the continuous growth of the network.
Maynara: Does WESt also support the participants outside the events?
Varvara: As the business development agency for the district of Steinfurt, we are the point of contact for all companies in the region, regardless of the industry or the size of the company. We try to accompany them individually and neutrally. Of course, this also happens outside of our events, e.g., within the framework of personal counselling sessions on funding opportunities, exchange appointments or on-site company visits. The participants of the women entrepreneurs’ meetings also contact us outside the events if they are interested in specific information or contacts. We are happy to take care of such enquiries.
Maynara: How about the online elements? How are they combined with the face-to-face events?
Varvara: We are currently in the process of establishing a forum on LinkedIn as an additional exchange platform for larger networking events and smaller company visits. The group has been online since autumn 2022 and currently has around 90 contacts. The idea for this online forum was introduced by a participant during the network’s relaunch. The group is intended to serve as a platform for networking, exchange, support, and cooperation between women entrepreneurs from the region outside of the events. The aim is to increase both the number of contacts and the intensity and quality of interactions between the members of the forum in the near future. We cordially invite all entrepreneurially active women from the region to actively use this platform for cooperation.
Plans are also currently underway to hold “online sessions” with experts from the network. The aim is to make this expertise visible and accessible to other women. The online sessions will last a maximum of one hour and include up to two stimuluses on different topics. In addition to the technical stimulus, we want to give the participants the opportunity to ask questions and to talk to the speakers. The first online session will take place at the end of September 2023. Depending on the response and feedback from the participants, we will continue to develop the format flexibly.
Maynara: How do you improve your activities/offers? Collect feedback, for example?
Varvara: We encourage participants to give us feedback or contribute their ideas and suggestions on the design of the networking activities. Feedback is usually given after our events or in between in our LinkedIn forum or in personal conversations. We can only improve our offerings if we receive such feedback and take it into account. It is important for us to know, for example, which topics women are interested in, or which time periods are better suited for placing various formats. As we know, women entrepreneurs have very little time, they are very busy both privately and professionally.
Maynara: Does WESt think about developing new formats inside the network?
Varvara: At our relaunch event in autumn 2022, for example, there was a suggestion to form so-called “power teams” within the network, which meet flexibly and deal with a topic in a small circle. This nice idea would be an approach that we could pursue in the future. Of course, this would require commitment from the network, as otherwise, we would lack the resources to bring this additional format to life and to accompany it closely.
Maynara: What do you see as still needing improvement in terms of inclusivity? For example, events in another language, with a focus on migrants or other regions?
Varvara: Close cooperation with women’s networks from other regions is definitely desirable and a long-term goal of our work. Migrant women who are entrepreneurially active are very welcome and already add enrichment to the network. We have not yet thought about events in another language unless we organise a meeting with Dutch women entrepreneurs at some point.
Maynara: Why do you think Unternehmerinnennetz works so well?
Varvara: The women entrepreneurs in the network appreciate our neutrality as a public institution and the possibility to decide personally how to get involved in the network. There are no costs, no specific obligations and no “official membership” for the participants.
Many women can also identify closely with the objectives of the network. After all, the aim of this network is to support cooperation within the network and to contribute to more visibility for women-owned businesses as well as for services and products of women from the region.
Successful networks develop through the dynamics of new members and take into account the wishes and ideas of the participants. In my opinion, these are important success factors that we also keep in mind when networking.
Maynara: Do you believe Unternehmerinnennetz could be replicated somewhere else?
Varvara: Certainty! Our formats can be transferred very well to other regions. Ideally, there should be an exchange platform for entrepreneurially active women in every region. Such networks have a lot of potential for cooperation, mutual support, and engagement for the region.
Maynara: What was the most inspiring testimonial you had so far? When did you last think “That is why the network exists”?
Varvara: After our event on 2 June 2023, I learned that the speaker on the evening, José de Baan, Head of Marketing for the Netherlands at ALPMANN FRÖHLICH Rechtsanwaltsgesellschaft mbH, had assisted a participant in getting contacts in the Dutch retail sector. For the entrepreneur concerned, taking part in the event proved to be a pure windfall. On the evening of the event, she told us that she had tried unsuccessfully to establish contacts with possible Dutch business partners.
Maynara: Lastly, why do you like to take care of the Unternehmerinnennetz?
Varvara: For me personally, it is a beautiful and at the same time inspiring task to bring together and support entrepreneurially active women. I admire the achievements of these women and am happy when we can contribute to the success of women entrepreneurs from the region through our work.