Laura Bertocci is a freelance journalism consultant based in Los Angeles, currently working with Ann Friedman and FRESH Speakers. Laura also founded a long-running professional peer group, TK Lady Group.
There’s a certain stress and cringey-ness to networking events: extending your hand to greet someone, trying to make awkward conversation while gently attempting to assess whether or not the person you’re talking to might be able to help your career one day. It’s also frustrating — even though these are people in your industry who might have answers, it doesn’t always feel like the right time or place to describe the obstacles you’re facing in your job, let alone get advice on how to fix them.
For four years now, I have been running a small peer group for women in media. We meet once a month in a coffee shop to talk about what’s going on at work, help each other come up with solutions and set goals.
“It feels like a 12-step program for working women,” said member Jeni Bartiromo, who joined after we took a writing class together. “When I do traditional networking, I cannot address certain professional concerns that are too uncomfortable or taboo.”
I call this fantastic group of ladies my professional ride-or-dies (the official group title is TK Lady Group — we couldn’t settle on a name at our first meeting and the classic journalism placeholder stuck around as a reflection that changes in our careers are still to come). We’ve helped each other find jobs, feel supported while freelancing, launch websites, navigate layoffs, apply to grad school and edit pitches. Naturally, I also asked them for feedback on this essay.
I think everyone should have a lady-career-peer group! Here’s what I’ve learned in several years of leading mine and how to start your own:
1) First, find your peers and invite them to join.
The origin story for my group is a little unusual. In 2015, feminist journalist Ann Friedman put out a call on Twitter for an editorial assistant. I cold-applied and interviewed, but didn’t think I’d get the job.
As I mentally began preparing my gracious rejection email, I planned to ask Ann to connect me with the other applicants. At the time I didn’t have much of a network to rely on — I was 24, and had recently moved to LA after the news site I’d been working for in Santa Barbara met its protracted and painful demise. I was looking for people my age who were doing what I was trying to do, and I knew that whoever had also applied would likely be young, feminist, working in media — essentially my peers.
But then I got the gig! I still work with Ann today, actually. She and I decided to move forward with the peer group anyway, with Ann serving as a resource we could turn to if we needed extra help.
When starting your own peer mentoring group, think about those you know whom you feel comfortable speaking to candidly about your career and work issues, and vice versa. Shine Theory (created by Ann and Aminatou Sow) emboldens us to ask, “Would we be better as collaborators than as competitors?”
Make a list of who’s in the same boat as you, and when you reach out, let them know this is about helping each other reach goals. Encourage them to bring a friend.
For your first meeting, I think the ideal group size is about five to seven people. This way, everyone gets a chance to talk within two hours, and you won’t need to break into side conversations. Generally, it’s also better not to have more than two people who work at the same organization, and they should agree to keep everything discussed at the meeting private.
2) Set a consistent date, time and place for your meeting.
Consistency is crucial for running a successful group. Don’t make your meeting a moving target, or attendance will drop drastically.
Going four years strong, my group meets on the second Thursday of every month in the same coffee shop at 7 p.m. This works because people always know what to expect: They can save the date in their calendars months in advance, and they know how long it’ll take them to get there after work. Keeping it simple = success.
3) Create a private Facebook group and a Google listserv.
While most of the discussion will happen in person, you need a virtual gathering place as well where people can share resources and ask questions between meetings.
You also need a method to deliver notifications about upcoming meetings, ideally one week prior. I cross-post reminders between Facebook and the Google listserv so I can reach members who’ve left social media.
4) Set the tone.
If those in attendance have never met before, go around the table and do some brief introductions. If you’re comfortable, share personal details! We are all more than just our work, and it’s helpful to create a space where someone can feel free to talk about how the stress from living with a significant other, friend drama or family conflicts are affecting their job, or vice versa.
More than anything, the goal is to create a space where members can truthfully share problems and receive support. Establish from the get-go that everything discussed is confidential, and treat each person’s story with respect.
“I think the professional support is the most valuable part,” said journalist Roselynne Reyes, who’s been a member since the very beginning. “I have friends and coworkers who will listen to my problems. But in this group I feel like I’ll get concrete advice on how to improve something I’m working on or advocate for a better project or get a raise/promotion.”
I asked Ann what she thought was important to strive for in achieving a beneficial group dynamic, and she returned me to Shine Theory. “No matter what you call this spirit of collaboration, it has to be present for a group like this to function,” she said.
We close every meeting by setting an achievable goal that we would like to reach in the next month, often based on the solutions we workshopped as a group. This can really be anything; my most recent goal was to take a break and truly enjoy a trip to Mexico I’m taking next month. Articulating the goal to the group out loud is the first step to making it happen — I didn’t muster the nerve to quit a truly terrible job until I’d made it my goal several times.
In every meeting reminder, I encourage members to bring a friend. Whenever I’m at networking events, I also invite the fellow lady journalism professionals I meet to join (usually by finding me on Facebook so I can direct-add them, or I’ll send them an email invitation if we exchanged business cards).
“I love how it’s very much an invite-your-friend kind of set up,” said longtime member and writer Hillary Jackson. “There’s a steady stream of new faces, and with it comes plenty of fresh perspectives and things to talk about.”
6) Keep it low-commitment for members and for yourself.
Maintaining a group for four years might seem like a significant commitment, but honestly, it’s very easy! After the initial set-up, all I do is send out reminders and show up to the meetings. If I’ll be out of town, I delegate the reminders to another member.
It’s also unlikely that the same group of people are going to be able to attend every single month, and it’s not productive to make members feel obligated to do so. The group is a resource, and it’s there if people need it — no one needs to feel guilty for skipping a meeting.
If just one other person shows up, it’s an opportunity to get to know that person really well. If 10 people come, then great! We’ll have a diverse hive-mind at our disposal to work on each person’s problems.
This group has created so much positive change in my career: I’ve learned how to stick up for myself in professional situations, leave toxic workplaces and transition into a rewarding freelance career that truly works for me. None of that would have been possible without the advice and reassurance of my professional ride-or-dies.
Wherever you’re at in your career, I’m willing to bet you could also use a group of badass women cheering you on and helping you think through your next move. So go forth! Make your groups, and let me know how it goes.
If you’re interested in starting a group, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org for even more advice than I could fit into this essay. I also recommend the Online News Association’s ONA Local program if you’re looking for existing communities to join, and Circle of Magic, which provides a framework for a similar style of group.