By Erika Webb
What happens when nearly 100 women get together for lunch? A lot, and that's the point.
The third WILLOW Ladies Luncheon at the DeBary Golf and Country Club July 26 drew around 88 business and professional women. Their post-luncheon comments on the organization's Facebook page tell the story.
"Ladies and team captains ... This, in my opinion, was the best Willow Luncheon ever. Thank you to everyone who took part and attended. The food was fab, the theme was awesome, the speakers and the timing all were amazing. Thank you for a great event. Who's making a plan to attend next time? Me, Me!" wrote Christine Kee.
Elizabeth Schild Hargis posted: "Hi girls, I really enjoyed the lunch today. Can you help me get my new esthetician business going? Like Almond Tree Spa. Now proud to offer Pevonia Botanical Products."
"Met some truly amazing women today! Thank you for giving us such a wonderful forum to connect. Looking forward to next time ...," Jo Rivera added.
Using adjectives like "amazing", "fun" and "fabulous," woman after woman enthusiastically praised the format, the venue, the other women and, of course, the food.
The name stands for Women in Leadership, Leaning on Wisdom.
The concept grew out of conversations between women who are involved with the West Volusia Chamber of Commerce, and the organization formed at the end of last year.
"We're focused and geared toward networking," said chamber secretary and director Laura Engstrom. "It's building one-on-one relationships."
Ms. Engstrom said many women were involved in various groups but wanted to assemble a one-size-fits-all type where everyone is welcome and the format is conducive to making as many connections as possible.
Word is getting around.
Connie Crews of Deltona attended the most recent WILLOW luncheon. A week later, she continued to feel inspired by the experience.
"It was so friendly, lively and congenial," Mrs. Crews said. "The atmosphere was just charged! Everybody was talking to everybody."
It's designed that way, Ms. Engstrom said.
Each attendee is assigned a number, from 1 to 8. Eight women are assigned to a table and given a questionnaire to complete. Business-oriented questions are intended to spark exchanges, inspire identification and foster familiarity.
After a designated amount of time those holding like numbers gather at other tables to meet and further discuss questions along with that day's topic.
"That way ladies who would typically come to the event together and sit the whole time together get to know other people," Ms. Engstrom explained.
Mrs. Crews retired two years ago. Throughout her career she worked extensively with people in sales, customer service and marketing. She found she missed those connections so she began to volunteer with the West Volusia Chamber of Commerce. That's how she found out about WILLOW.
As table captain, it was her job to start the introductions and facilitate the discussion, starting with the questionnaire.
The query as to what worries or concerns women most when it comes to their business succeeded in starting the conversation and kept it going.
"For most, the biggest worry was having enough business, generating enough business," Mrs. Crews said. "That led to all of us talking about the recession. There are a lot still trying to re-build from that."
One of the best aspects of the event, for her, was the diversity. Women in health care, banking, insurance, arts and entertainment, and gift basket design and delivery attended along with too many more to mention, she said.
"Just about every type of business was represented there. You figure you've got 88 women there. That's a lot of businesses," Mrs. Crews said.
She suspects her husband Paul will encourage her to attend again -- not that she needs the nudge -- because she went home bearing gifts from the "Godiva Chocolate Lady."
Ms. Engstrom and Mrs. Crews both emphasized the invitation extends to home-based business owners as well.
"You don't have to be a chamber member to attend the WILLOW luncheon or WILLOW on the Town after hours," Ms. Engstrom said. "Many ladies, especially if they have home-based businesses, don't think they'll be taken seriously, their business isn't big enough or they can't afford (a chamber membership)."
Different types of clever and successful home-based ventures intrigue and inspire Mrs. Crews. Through WILLOW she is able to discover those she might otherwise never have known about.
"We want to welcome them, get them to believe in themselves and what they're doing, build their business, build connections and in the future they may be able to join a chamber," Ms. Engstrom said of the home-based individuals.
Each luncheon features a guest speaker.
"We do our darnedest to make sure our speaker is a woman," Ms. Engstrom said. "No disrespect toward men but they change the dynamic of the room."
The speakers so far have been: Aida Plontke, of Poison Posture, a NYR Organic Independent Consultant who discussed techniques to utilize networking opportunities and effectively present oneself; Rhonda H. Smith, a QuickBooks professional and teacher who talked about creating order in business and in life; and Katy Brown-Thibodeau with West Volusia Wealth Management, who shared financial planning strategies as they relate to women.
From hotels in Daytona Beach to bakeries in Seminole County women are flocking to WILLOW to connect and grow.
"They're coming from all over," Mrs. Crews said. "It's not a chamber event. It's a Volusia County club."
And, she added, retired women should attend because their experience and knowledge is valuable.
"I am not a club person but I was so impressed with it," Mrs. Crews said. "There were all types of women, all demographics, and you never felt left out. You're welcomed. It's a very warm group, and an hour and a half flew by."
The next luncheon will be Friday, Oct. 25. Tickets are $15 and will be sold in advance as well as at the event.
For information about WILLOW Ladies Networking Group, contact the West Volusia Regional Chamber of Commerce at (386) 490-4606 or visit westvolusiaregionalchamber.org.