You should wear more makeup, you look tired.
Yes. Abusive relationships can start as subtly as that. A few backhanded compliments here, a putdown there. Next thing you know you feel guilty about spending time with your friends because your partner would be upset if you did. Then you look around and realize you’re in solitary confinement with an abusive warden.
Stories like this happen all the time. One just like it happened to Diane Simovich. She was young, he wasn’t; and before she knew it, her California dream became a flight back to New Jersey with an adopted son in tow.
And that was after a friend of hers was murdered by her boyfriend whom no one knew had it in him to do something like that.
But Simovich, a former healthcare benefits executive, also brought back with her an idea built from the traumas she had endured in her life and relationships. It was a networking group designed to bring businesswomen together as a force to help raise awareness of women in need. Today it’s known as BW-NICE — Business Women Networking LLC, Involving Charity & Education.
The group that started out as one uncertain foray into having networking opportunities geared towards women today has 12 chapters on the East Coast. The Mercer County chapter celebrates its one-year anniversary on Monday, October 9, at 8:30 a.m. at Salt Creek Grille, 1 Rockingham Row in Princeton Forrestal Village.
The breakfast networking meeting, like all BW-NICE events, raises money for a local charity. The Mercer County chapter’s designee is WomanSpace. Cost to attend: $28, plus a donation item for WomanSpace. Contact chapter president Beth Dempsey at 732-841-4458 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit BWNICE.org.
Simovich’s story began in Bergen County, where she grew up. Her father was in the telecommunications industry and worked for Fujitsu for many years. Her mother was in sales for the food brokerage industry. “They were fortunate enough to take an early retirement,” she says.
Simovich started college at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, studying business management and marketing. She transferred to California State University, Fullerton, earning her bachelor’s in the same subject in 1984. At the time, she says, the idea of women in the insurance and benefits sector was a novel thing and considered a growth market. She worked for what was then MetLife.
By the end of the 1990s she had become a vice president at Health Net and later an executive at PacifiCare and Creative Benefits Concepts. By 2006 she was back in New Jersey and had started BW-NICE. She worked at Dispenza Financial in Old Bridge. Her main company these days is Balanced Living Solutions, where she is the managing member and provides various long-term insurance services.
Along the way, though, between California and her return east, Simovich had made a friend in the insurance industry. They went for a Friday night out, and what makes that so unnerving is that everything about her friend was utterly normal. On Monday, Simovich walked into work to learn from her boss that her friend had been brutally stabbed by her boyfriend, and he had fled to Mexico.
“She had opened up to a mutual friend,” Simovich says. “We had pagers at the time, and he’d been paging her constantly, he was following her. She was getting worried.”
But Simovich had no idea that something was so severely wrong. She was in her 20s in the late 1980s, and because she had come from a stable family and had parents who were married for 50-odd years, “I was not equipped for the world,” she says.
She means that she didn’t believe that people would ever be in bad relationships like that. But there is the insidious part: smart people, strong people, well-adjusted people from good homes and loving upbringings are just as likely to fall into an abusive, controlling relationship as anyone else.
Simovich did it herself. She had met a guy from Russia who was almost twice her age, married him, and one day realized she had been slowly backed into an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship. Realities like this, along with the growing number of professional and executive-level women circa 1990, compelled her to build a less guy-oriented networking and business presence in California.
“Everything was golf, golf, golf,” she says. “I thought, ‘Let’s do something different.’”
To appeal to women, and to maybe appease her early-college self, Simovich designed a networking event that centered on a fashion show. The response from women, she says, was immediate and overwhelming.
But so was the charity component. Professional women, it turned out, really liked the idea of networking with a purpose larger than themselves. When she got back to New Jersey, divorced and having adopted her ex’s son, Simovich launched her first BW-NICE event in 2006 to the same kind of response she had received in California.
Fashion is still a cornerstone of the group. If you want to start a BW-NICE chapter, part of the deal is you need to put on a Red Shoe event within two years. The Red Shoe is BW-NICE’s annual fashion charity fundraiser.
It is, Simovich says, the biggest event of the year, and proceeds always benefit a women-in-need charity within the county in which the chapter operates.
BW-NICE has become Simovich’s full-time job. She has crafted a turnkey model to replicate chapters, and seen their number grow steadily over the last decade. BW-NICE has 12 chapters, including three in Pennsylvania. Simovich’s goal is to have one in every county in New Jersey and then take things national.
“I’m a big-picture person,” she says. “In the last couple years I’ve been doing a lot of strategic activities to take this to the next level. This is my passion; I’ve really immersed myself in it.”
Simovich routinely gets calls from women who have found BW-NICE, learned about some of the warning signs of a bad relationship, and realized that they are in one. She also gets texts and calls from women within the network who need contact numbers for someone right now, because that someone is in actual physical danger.
This has been both the biggest surprise and biggest reward for Simovich, she says: the lives affected by the meetings and the individual chapters; the fact that every day she hears of someone else learning to understand just how subtle and pervasive abuse can actually be — and how it comes in so many forms, from physical to spiritual.
“Every woman has a story,” she says of the women she hears from through BW-NICE. Meaning that every woman who tells her story has a version of that story we started out with — something quietly off that becomes something genuinely troubling. The thing to remember, Simovich says, is that you don’t have to know exactly what’s wrong to know that something is wrong.
“I hear all the time, ‘Thank you for sharing,’” she says. “I hear so many unbelievable, unbelievably courageous stories. We need to keep doing this.”