When Pamela Ryckman got a helping hand in business from a few powerful women early in her career, she didn’t know that she was benefiting from a nationwide network of female power brokers. It wasn’t until years later that Ryckman realized she had been helped by a group she calls the “Stiletto Network.”

Ryckman has now written a book about these businesswomen called “Stiletto Network: Inside the Women’s Power Circles That Are Changing the Face of Business.”

A public speaker as well as a journalist, Ryckman will discuss the nationwide “Stiletto Network” trend and explain how women can start their own at the College of New Jersey’s third Annual Women’s Leadership Summit on Tuesday, November 5, at 9 a.m. in Room 212 of TCNJ’s Education Building. For more information, call 609-771-3064 or visit www.tcnj.edu/womensnetworks/. Registration: $75; $65 for TCNJ Alumni. All participants will receive a copy of Ryckman’s book, “Stiletto Network: Inside the Women’s Power Circles That Are Changing the Face of Business.”

Ryckman grew up in Short Hills, New Jersey, in what she calls a “girl house,” meaning that she and her mother and younger sister outnumbered her father three to one. He was a corporate insurance executive, her mother a stay-at-home mom, and Ryckman borrowed aspects from both for her early career. She attended Princeton University, graduating in 1996 with a degree in comparative literature.

Ryckman worked for Goldman Sachs & Co.’s equities financial and strategic management group prior to Merrill Lynch, where she continued working 12 to 15 hours a day for the firm’s global markets and investment banking group up until a few days before the birth of her first son.

Now with three sons and a husband, Ryckman is very much living in a man’s world. So it comes as no surprise that today Ryckman finds herself a gatekeeper between Girl World and the business world — an underground phenomenon known as “The Stiletto Network.”

In the summer of 2010, Ryckman flew out to Silicon Valley to write an article on a women’s conference that featured 50 of the highest-powered women of the West Coast and was surprised to find women who dressed with assertively feminine style. They weren’t dressed in blue and gray pinstriped suits like the businesswomen of yesteryear, but instead wore beautiful dresses and chic shoes. “What is allowing these women to be so successful and yet comfortable in their own skin?” Ryckman wondered. And when she dug deeper, she uncovered an intricate network of women’s dinner groups that reached across every major city, every age group, and every industry.

From CEOs of major companies to aspiring Gen Y-ers to mothers launching businesses from their basements, ambitious women were finding each other and forming support systems. These dinner groups are girlfriends who, Ryckman says, eat, drink — sometimes copiously — gossip naughtily, and “love you, but will also give you a kick in the pants when you need it.” What started as an article soon evolved into a book. Ryckman recalls, “When I found out they even have stiletto networks in Alaska, I knew I was on to something.”

When Ryckman first went into finance, she says, “I didn’t have much direction, so I took a job that was going to pay me and train me, and that was finance.” The turning point came when Ryckman had her first child. She wanted to be able to spend time with her son without giving up a career. “If I was going to be working that hard, I wanted it to be on something that was more personally fulfilling, and when it came down to it, I had always wanted to write,” she says. After all, she had won the writing prize at Millville High School, she recalls with a laugh. So while still working at Merrill Lynch, Ryckman applied to journalism schools and was accepted to New York University.

At 30, Ryckman expected to be in the company of other older students, people switching careers, people with families, but what she found instead were early 20-somethings with very little experience. There was no natural peer group for her there, so she formed friendships with her professors and began to experience the effects of the Stiletto Network even before she knew what a “stiletto network” was.

Ryckman took a class with Sue Shapiro, journalism instructor and author of eight books, who introduced her to Marci Alboher, author and creator of the New York Times’ Shifting Careers column, who later introduced her to an editor of the Financial Times, where Ryckman would work for more than three years. She also met Megan Mulligan, then of the New York Sun, who had coffee with Ryckman before offering her a job several weeks later. When Ryckman, again pregnant, was trying to break into journalism as a nontraditional candidate, i.e. always pregnant or nursing, it was women who believed in her and opened doors for her.

Gender differences didn’t come to Ryckman’s attention at Princeton or in the finance world, which she left before hitting the glass ceiling. She had worked alongside only men, and worked successfully, making her perhaps the ideal candidate to tackle gender differences in the workplace. She doesn’t have an axe to grind against men. Instead, she has sons. And Ryckman says that when you have boys, you see the gender differences firsthand. “They are innate, and they are clear as soon as these babies come out,” she says. “When you watch a group of boys play and you watch a group of girls play, it’s very different.”

The same goes for the way women and men work. Women are very collaborative, Ryckman says, “If you look at the way we operate, with the carpool, and families, and the PTA — we work together. It’s ‘I’ll pick up your kid Monday if you drop mine off Friday.’”

Unlike the white and wealthy good ole boys of yesteryear, you don’t have to be rich or powerful to belong to this good ole girls club. Though Ryckman talks exclusively about high-powered women in her book, it’s worth noting that most of them were not at the top of their fields when they started their groups. In fact, most women attributed their successes to support gained through the dinner groups. Stiletto networks are changing the way women conduct business and giving them more equal footing in the workforce.

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