Women helping women
The Vars and Area Women’s Business Network saw many faces of the members, old and new, come through the doors at the Bearbrook Community Centre on July 10 for the 20th anniversary celebration. The event included a sweet treat of anniversary cake.       Sawyer Helmer photo

Co-founder and current president of the Vars and Area Women’s Business Network Julie Daoust, welcomed members to the 20th anniversary celebration. Sawyer Helmer photo

Kalynn Sawyer Helmer
Villager Staff
VARS — The Vars and Area Women’s Business Network celebrated their 20th anniversary last week on Tues., July 10. Julie Daoust, co-founder of the network said it had been a busy year of planning and reconnecting with past members to invite them to the celebration. The evening, spent at the Bearbrook Community Centre featured displays from current members, a business card display from all past cards and food and drinks for everyone to enjoy.

Over 20 years the network has seen about 220 different women come and go with 175 different businesses, said Daoust. The group started solely in Vars with eight women. Their meetings were held in one of the few storefront shops or at a member’s home. When things grew, Daoust said the group began meeting in church halls and restaurants. Finally in recent years the network has found a home at the Bearbrook Community Centre where they hold two meeting times, one in the mornings and one in the evenings to accommodate the member’s different schedules.

While the group has had about 220 members over the years, it averages at roughly 25 to 50 per year. Some, like Daoust have made it for the long haul, others have stayed for 10 or so years and more still come for a few years before setting back out. Daoust was happy to say that many members leave when their businesses have flourished to the point that they no longer have the time to attend the meetings. These circumstances are just one of the testimonials to the network’s achievement of their vision to be a place where women help women.

When the network was smaller, Daoust explained, the types of businesses able to join were restricted. Only one brand of skin care or one brand of supplements. As the network grew, it also branched out to accept multiple brands of different products – as long as no brand is duplicated. This created an environment not where there is competition, but where business owners are kept on their toes. “They must know their own products really well,” said Daoust. It also has become a way of working together to give customers their best options. Daoust explained that the network members can refer clients to one another even across similar products when customers have allergies or ingredient restrictions. The referral or business comes around again in one way or another. Women helping women.

“We know what it’s like to run a business whether it’s part-time or full-time and juggle life in general. We understand the need to have that balance of life. Sometimes [the network] is just helping with life or hearing experiences from people at different stages,” explained Daoust.

The network also features a number of speakers who are brought in to speak about a topic of interest, to teach the members something new or even talk about life. Daoust said some interesting talks were from lawyers who spoke to the members about wills and estates. Many guests attend those nights as well. She said the network has even brought in exercise and dance instructors to get the ladies to try something new. Whether the speaker is a member or not, Daoust said it’s not about a sale pitch but about teaching the group new skills.

The network is still growing with members averaging from 30 to 50 years old and some younger members in their 20s. The meetings are irregular over the summer but will get back on track in September in time to prepare for the November tradeshow and craft show at St. Mary’s Hall in Navan. The trade show will feature a bake sale to raise funds for local charities and organizations.

As for Daoust she said she is ready to hand over the role of president but will be involved for many years to come. “It’s in my blood,” she said. “Personally [this anniversary] has been extra special. I probably know every woman that has walked through the room because I have been a constant the whole time. I’ve done it with the help of the members and the board and it really makes me feel happy and proud that I’ve crossed paths with so many different women and I know that I’ve been there to motivate or help them or give them connections. It gives me a great feeling of satisfaction to be involved in so many people’s lives for business reasons.”

The network allows women to attend as a guest three times to get the feel of the group without committing to a membership. Daoust said they are always welcoming new members from any of the surrounding areas. “Networking is about building relationships and that takes time. It can’t only be geared towards selling, it’s about nurturing and building those relationships,” said Daoust. She concluded that what “starts out as business, brings friendship and learning.”