Small Business

Life Lessons from the Sisterhood


By Lisa Bergson "Sisterhood is powerful," the feminist movement proclaimed in the '70s. You might never know it in the business world, where many women embrace the traditional male skills of corporate combat. This came as a shock and disappointment when I first stumbled into business in the late '70s, after long runs in the counter-culture and academia. Somehow, I had expected women would transform the workplace, not vice versa.

Nonetheless, when I found myself floundering in Business Week's tough environment back in 1979, I turned to a trusty model from the early feminist era: the support group. Employed in separate venues, from Public Broadcasting to Roosevelt Hospital, the five members of our group agreed to keep one another's stories confidential as we helped each other decipher and master corporate politics.

We've continued, with a modicum of turnover, to this day. By now, the group has shepherded me through some fairly significant transitions as I moved from the career of a New York City writer and editor to that of a manufacturer in Warrington, Pa., and into the present, as I juggle MEECO and my new high-tech offshoot, Tiger Optics.

While I cannot discuss the other members' lives in any detail, the group itself has survived several permutations. We used to meet every other week in one another's homes, but now most of us have left Manhattan. So once a month, we trek into town, with one woman coming all the way from Amherst, Mass. From 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., we gather at a university club, hotel suite, or quiet restaurant to share our lives.

RULES OF ORDER. It's a special role we play in each other's lives, particularly now that half the group's members have retired from the corporate world to become successful artists. (It's encouraging to see how skills like time management, networking, marketing, and accounting can accelerate an artist's career. These are things they don't teach in art school.) At times, we're a sounding board. At others, a war room. And sometimes, we're just a source of pure comfort. The strange thing is how we seem to intuit what's needed. Maybe that's because we've been meeting together for so long.

I attribute the group's astonishing longevity to its rules and focus. We allow no trashing, which makes for a safe, positive environment. We allot time for each of us, so no one can dominate the meeting or avoid taking her turn. We don't psychoanalyze, which isn't our role. We are pragmatic and tactical, looking for ways to survive and win in our working lives.

By the same token, we don't play "ain't it awful." Unlike the early women's consciousness-raising groups, our purpose is not to sit around and curse collective injustice. We are solution-oriented. All these tools derive from a group therapy called radical psychology that I was involved in back in the early '70s in Berkeley, which based its theories on Claude Steiner's work in Transactional Analysis (Remember I'm O.K., You're O.K.?).

Still, I must admit that while the group is generally helpful, it is not always right. For example, my fellow members adamantly opposed my writing "Factory Days." They feared I might expose too much to customers and competitors or, worse yet, run into legal problems. They didn't know about Business Week Online's gimlet-eyed copy editors and its legal department. Moreover, the column fulfills my desire to write without neglecting my obligations at work. Plus, adding you, dear readers, to my support group is the best thing that has happened in this woman's business life. (Thank you, Business Week Online!)

GROWING APART? Perhaps it's not surprising that, over the past year, I started to feel more and more alienated from the group. Even though one of my dearest friends since 1965 recently joined, I have considered dropping out. It wasn't just the opposition to "Factory Days." There's only one other business owner, and she's self-employed. How can they truly relate to my issues as a boss and an entrepreneur? Worse, I began to wonder if, after so many years, our perceptions of one another had become so static they did not allow for change?

I vowed to hang in for the holidays and then decide. Meanwhile, I've been thinking a lot about what the group means to me. Outside of the group, we rarely see each other socially, except for weddings, significant anniversaries, major birthdays, and the like. Without the group, I might not see these dear women at all. I realized my bond to them has grown beyond the notion of the support group -- it's more powerful than that. So I've decided to stick with it. They say you can't choose your family. But I got to choose my sisters.

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Happy New Year! It's time for a break -- I'll be back in a month with more "Factory Days." Until then, please stay in touch. I promise a prompt reply. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at Business Week and freelanced for many business publications. She received a Masters in Journalism from New York University and received Columbia University's Walter Bagehot Fellowship for economics and business journalism. You can visit her company's web site at www.meeco.com, or contact her at lbergson@meeco.com.


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