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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 22, 2017 12 months ago

Stick Together

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A networking group has found some fast growth with a twist on the traditional model.
by: Beth Luberecki Contributing Writer

Family therapist and counselor Robyn Spirtas didn't set out to start a networking group.

But in 2009, with the economy tanking, she got together to talk business with a few friends. They had such a great time at lunch they decided to meet again the next month. This time they brought a few more friends, and soon the group was too big to keep gathering at Spirtas's office.

So they moved to Theresa's Restaurant in Bradenton. And the group kept growing, eventually becoming S.W.A.T. Networking, which stands for Successful Women Aligning Together. As membership continued to increase, it had to make another move, this time to Renaissance on 9th in Bradenton, where it still meets monthly.

And from that single Bradenton group, S.W.A.T. Networking has expanded to seven chapters, with monthly meetings in Lakewood Ranch, Sarasota, Parrish, Venice, Brandon and Bradenton Beach. More than 300 women call themselves S.W.A.T. “sisters,” ranging in age from 19 to 83. “It just keeps expanding,” says Spirtas, S.W.A.T.'s founder and CEO.

One reason for S.W.A.T.'s success is how it differs from other local networking groups. There's no exclusivity in S.W.A.T., which means no limits as to how many members can come from the same industry. So there are multiple Realtors, bankers and chiropractors, for example, among its membership.

“I don't want to turn anybody away, because everyone's different,” says Spirtas, who holds a Ph.D. in counseling psychology and spent 26 years in private practice. “It's always been my philosophy that there's enough to go around. You can't possibly do everything. If you recommend other S.W.A.T. sisters who do the same or similar as you, it will come back to you.”

The group's all-women membership also helps it stand out from other options. “S.W.A.T. is a place to come and network your business, and that's our No. 1 priority,” says executive director Deb Gerard. “But it's also made up of over 300 women who truly care about each other. It's like the sorority of networking; it's a sisterhood. You get to know each other and you develop relationships outside of your business model.”

Members support causes important to each other, provide assistance during difficult life events and commiserate about career difficulties. Each chapter tracks who comes to the meetings and reaches out to members who haven't shown up in a while to make sure they're OK.

Those deeper connections create not only friendships, but also business opportunities. Some members have grown their businesses so much through S.W.A.T. that they can no longer make the regular monthly meetings. That led to a new membership level for the group. While regular membership is $125 a year ($100 for nonprofits), the limited-access membership option is $75. That keeps those women in S.W.A.T.'s business directory and allows them to continue networking online with other members.

Regular members choose three home chapters at which they want to attend meetings. Women are encouraged to bring their daughters, nieces and granddaughters along to help develop the next generation of successful businesswomen.

Membership fees cover the group's basic operating expenses, and a team of more than 50 volunteers help run the chapters. Each position in each chapter receives the same training. So if, say, the secretary for Lakewood Ranch can't make a meeting, another chapter's secretary can fill in.

Additional chapters are a possibility, but that connectedness and focus on consistency comes with pros and cons. “It makes it harder and easier at the same time,” says Spirtas. “If they were individual chapters that were self-sufficient, it might be different. But we don't run that way. We're all under one umbrella. So the more chapters we have, the more complicated it gets.”

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