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Beyond balance

Published on Friday, 17 Jan 2014
Claire Fenner
Photo: Berton Chang

Claire Fenner’s Heels and Deals networking community goes beyond work-life balance as it seeks work-life fit for women

Anyone who wants to start a business must first spend time with other entrepreneurs to understand what life is like running one’s own enterprise. This is the most valuable advice Claire Fenner has for anyone thinking of joining the ranks of the self-employed.

“The life of an entrepreneur is not nine to five – they work harder and longer compared with any salaried job,” says the global CEO of Heels and Deals, a networking community for women entrepreneurs and business owners. “Not everybody is an entrepreneur, so they need to be aware of the sacrifices they might have to make.”

While Fenner clearly enjoys the relative freedom and success of running her own firm, the business idea fell into her lap while she was actually seeking help and support for her own magazine startup in Dubai, just before the onslaught of the 2008 global financial crisis.

“During the process of set-up and launch, I met so many women who were also business owners, who needed help, advice or referrals for web developers, lawyers, graphic designers and suchlike,” she says. “I was very good at networking and I found a lot of the women whom I met, who were business owners, would not network and go to events, and I was forever spending my time connecting people. I saw this amazing opportunity.”

Fenner and a friend decided to start a networking community called Heels and Deals. Fenner recalls that the first event they hosted expected only around 40 participants, but instead 185 women came bursting through the doors. “We realised there was a huge need and it really inspired us to continue and host regular events,” she says.

Today, the business is growing rapidly, with membership firmly in place in Dubai and Hong Kong. Talks are also under way to expand the network to 12 other cities worldwide, with the stated aim of helping women network, boost their confidence, and seek and offer mutual support.

“Women are all too quick to champion others without championing ourselves, and I think we need to work on championing ourselves because it’s through the successes we achieve that we are able to help other women along the way,” she says.

While the group’s membership is also open to men, Fenner says having a largely female-only community breaks down barriers and helps women to network more efficiently and boost their confidence faster.

“If you look at the key attributes of women and men, they network very differently,” Fenner says, cautioning that it is an observed generalisation. “Men tend to network on a more superficial level and it takes them longer, while women are very good at building deep relationships and finding common ground a lot quicker.”

Anna Bowkis, founder of Anna Bowkis Photography and a Heels and Deals member for nearly a year, agrees. “I love the fact that it is mainly an all-women networking group.  As working women, we all face similar battles with business and family life, so it’s great to be able to share these issues … Women are looking for business portraits that reflect their personalities,” she says.

For this reason, Heels and Deals events rely on women’s networking strengths. An example is its event best described as speed-dating for women in business. The 40-minute session is held in a relaxed environment and members are given three minutes to communicate their business goals and needs to another member.

“This is something that we put together as we were researching the most effective networking format. Obviously, with our demographic, women are extremely busy, so this is a way to deliver high value in a very short time and in a cost-effective way,” Fenner says.

The “facilitative environment”, as she calls it, allows entrepreneurs to pin down their business goals, seek out solutions and get support.

 “The opportunities out there are huge, so expanding your network and really maximising the benefits and having that support from like-minded people is important,” she says.

Fenner hopes that the initiative can help to change perceptions of and attitudes towards women at work.

“Things are changing extremely slowly,” she says about women in the workplace – whether it’s about having more women in leadership positions, ensuring the right pay and recognition for women, or even focusing on a woman’s needs and helping her achieve work-life balance. Women need to realise there really isn’t such a thing as work-life balance, it is more about a work-life fit – it’s really about the individual identifying what her priorities, values and limits are. As women in business, we don’t want to delegate all our family responsibilities.”

Whether it’s attending a sports day or a celebration at school, Fenner says her community wants to help influence change for women in the workplace, and also for men to be given the same opportunities.

“It really does go across the whole spectrum of how we treat all of our employees and how we help women to achieve a work-life fit,” she adds.  


Claire Fenners words of wisdom for would-be entrepreneurs

Fittingly right “Focus on getting a work-life fit, rather than a work-life balance.”
Customised care  “Every business is individual – what’s right for one may not be right for others. You shouldn’t be swayed into thinking like the norm.”
Ideas into action “Research, research, research. Sometimes people have the most amazing ideas, but you must research them.”
Know your nous  “Not everyone is an entrepreneur. Talk to other entrepreneurs to see if that’s a career path suitable for you.”
Reach out  “Get support from the most amazing community.”

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