Terri Petry knows the value of networking. A self-described “shameless networker,” she belongs to several organizations, including NJAWBO, Rotary, and both the Mercer Regional and Princeton chambers of commerce among others.

But a few years ago Petry saw the need for an additional networking group — and since it wasn’t already available in Mercer County, she decided to start it herself.

Women Interested in Networking, or WIN, takes Petry’s own motto as its own. “Shameless networking” and nothing else is the goal of the group, which meets the third Thursday of every month at noon at Villa Mannino Restaurant, Yardville. The next meeting is Thursday, December 17. Cost: $20. Reservations can be made at www.whoscoming.com/WIN

“At so many meetings by the time you have committee reports, a guest speaker, a meeting sponsor, introductions, and lunch, it takes all afternoon,” she says. “I didn’t have that kind of time and most of the women I knew didn’t have it either.”

WIN dispenses with everything but the basics — a short, open networking period at the beginning of each meeting, lunch, and time for 30-second introductions from each participant. There are no guest speakers, no meeting notes, no sponsors giving pitches, no committee reports. Just networking. Meetings end promptly at 1:30 p.m., although the room is available until 2 p.m. for attendees who want to get in a little additional networking time.

Petry, who earned her bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, is busy herself. She is the publisher of Mercer County Woman, a newspaper published every other month that targets professional women in the area. She started the paper after 20 years in sales, working first for the Yellow Pages, then Merck, and finally as sales manager for a national real estate publication.

“I increased their advertising by 400 percent in three years,” she says. “Then I looked around and decided I’m making this money for everyone else. I want to make it for myself.”

WIN opened its doors in 2006 with about 20 women in attendance, and it has grown by leaps and bounds ever since. Petry now has a list of more than 1,300 women who have attended at least one meeting in the past three years, and their businesses range from the “typical” woman-owned business, such as cosmetics sales and jewelry designers, to non-traditional businesses, such as modular home construction. “You can find printers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, any business you need you’ll find at WIN,” Petry says.

The increasing number of participants has meant a few changes in the basic structure of WIN over the years. At first, no reservations were required and walk-ins were always welcome. But when regular attendance shot past 70, the group became too large to easily accomplish even the basics of lunch and introductions in the hour and a half time period.

WIN lunches are now limited to the first 50 registrants, and the meetings are always filled. But that doesn’t mean that the group is in any way exclusive. “About half the people at each meeting are regular, die-hard WIN attendees, and about half are new to the group or only come occasionally,” says Petry.

In addition, anyone who attends even one meeting may leave a business card, postcard, or brochure that will be displayed on a table at each meeting for as long as the material lasts. Petry collects the material, stores it in boxes and brings it to each meeting.

Evening edition. There is also a new evening edition of WIN, called Conversations, and billed as “a relaxed after-hours soiree.”

Petry started the evening meetings because of the number of women who expressed interest in WIN but were not able to attend at lunchtime, and also as a way to allow interested businesses to promote their products or services to the WIN audience.

The format of Conversations is less formal than the lunches. “After a hard day at work this is an opportunity to actually have more relaxed, in-depth conversations,” she says. The events are held at a variety of locations, from a bank to a spa. The get-togethers are held once a month and are free, and the most recent event took place on December 8 at Julianna’s Closet and Bottoni Jewelers in Hamilton. To learn about the next event, check the Mercer County Woman website, www.MercerCountyWoman.com.

Not a business. Petry sometimes has to remind others — and herself — that WIN is not a business. “It is not something I make money at,” she says. “I do it because I like connecting people.”

But as it has grown it has taken more time and more money. “We print flyers, and I need storage to keep all of our materials. I don’t think WIN needs to be making money, but I don’t want it to be on the red side of my ledger, either,” she says. In short, it is time for WIN to start paying for itself. That’s why she took the next step and set up a membership fee structure that began in October.

WIN memberships. Petry does understand that in tough times people are reluctant to pay additional money. “If it comes to a choice between keeping your doors open and paying membership dues, it’s obvious what the choice will be,” she says. That’s why she is keeping the WIN membership fees low — $120 per year with a one-time $25 administration fee, making it only $30 per month when the lunch fee is added in.

Additional benefits are planned for members, including an online member directory, web links to businesses, and access to an online calendar to post business seminars and events.

Teaching others to network. One of the things Petry enjoys most about WIN is the opportunity to share her knowledge of networking with newer business owners. “I have a lot of people tell me that WIN is one of the first networking experiences they have had,” she says.

While many business owners think that networking is just another word for selling, that’s not what WIN is about. “You need to understand that you aren’t there to sell, but to talk with other people, get to know them, and make not just professional, but personal relationships. If you do that you can really enjoy networking,” she says.

When networking your motto should always be “give first,” she adds. “If someone comes in with the attitude that they are just there to sell their own products and never give anything back it won’t work for them. You need to be ready to talk to everyone — whether you think they need your product or not.”

Many first time networkers are uncomfortable with introducing themselves and talking about their business during the traditional “30 second commercial,” that each member gives. Petry suggests a format to make it easier.

First, introduce yourself and your company. Next, explain as specifically as possible how the group can help you. “If you want to meet the sales manager at a specific business, ask for it. You never know who know someone you want to know,” she says. Finally, repeat who you are and your business.

Practice makes the process easier. In fact, she says, “the only way to network successfully is to leave fear at the door.”

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