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Why networks are important to you and me

Before I started out as a woman in business running debbiedooodah, I was first and foremost a friend, mother and lover and I had no idea about the amazing business networks that Nottingham has to offer.

I learnt about the value of networks and friendships the hard way, as all good lessons are generally learnt!

At the tender age of 29 I become mum to my beautiful daughter Robin. We were a perfect pair, I was a single mum and she was an only child.  We slept, woke and did everything together in an isolated bubble.  Accept it was god damned hard, but being the independent creative spirit I am, I refused offers of help, determined to show the world just how powerful I was.

Except I wasn’t.  I started to get sick, a lot.  My body ached, I could barely walk to the library with my tiny baby and then I’d fall asleep on their big circular rug while my little Robin crawled round me.

I had cancer, but I didn’t know it for about 8 months and as I got sicker I had to ask for help.  I had to delve into my networks, my friendship groups, neighbours I hardly knew.  Please can you look after my baby, please can you wash up for me, please just hold my hair back while I throw up, again.

When I was diagnosed it was almost a relief.  That was what it was all about.  That’s why I felt so tired, it wasn’t just breastfeeding and being a mummy, I actually had an illness.  And then it dawned on me, god damn I’ve got to fight this thing, I’ve got to be here for my very small baby, I’ve got to get better.

Debbie Clarke and Robin Ruby Clarke Phillips

So I contacted everyone I knew, put a call out on Facebook, called my friends and families.  And there they all were in droves.  One friend actually quit her job, moved cities and lived in my front room to look after me and Robin.  Friends made me dinner, cleaned my house, took me to chemo, Robin’s Dad took her every weekend, so I had time, time to get better.  And through all the madness, we actually had a good time, enjoyed the summer and laughed together.

I learnt the value of asking for help, that we’re all stronger together.

So what has all this to do with business networks I might hear you cry.  Great story, but how can it help me?

So after all the exciting cancer times, I went back to work and everything returned to normal.  For a while.  And then I thought ‘hell this is far too boring , let’s throw all the chips in the air and go freelance’ – just imagine.

And then all the glorious networks that I’d set up weren’t much use to me as a woman in business. ‘What are you doing?’, my friends would ask, ‘Wouldn’t it be easier for you to just get a proper job?’

So I had to go out and make entirely new networks.

I was lucky enough to be given the awesome network ‘First Tuesday’ for socially minded, entrepreneurs with soul.  It’s always been a passion of mine to make a positive impact on society and here I was, the leader of a network for like-minded people.

Fantastic. I met people who wanted to mentor me, for free.  Businesses that wanted to buy in my services, a team that gave up their spare time to help me run and grow the network. I felt like I’d come home.

Over the past year and half we’ve built the network from 20 people turning up each month to around 70.  70 businesses that come along to hear me bumble on about various ways to improve Nottingham and hear from experts on how to improve their businesses.  If we all improve our businesses by 2% each time we attend, imagine the impact of that support over 12 months!

So I had my network of freelancers and people who owned their own businesses, but I still felt like I needed something else.

Something more real and human, more supportive.

So with Jeanne Booth and Beth at The Kiosk we set up Blue Stockings, An intimate monthly supper club, where women in business can come together warts and all and talk about what it’s actually like to run a business.

It used to be held inside a shipping container, the confines of which force intimacy.  You can’t fit many people into a shipping container.  Lucky today we are located in town in the fantastic THiNK:kiosk cafe.

We wanted to talk about mental health, caring for relatives and children, periods and doing business as a woman.  We theme each meal, so we have an anchor for our discussions and we eat amazing food and drink wine.  It’s a fabulously warm and supportive event.

So what’s next for me and networks?  I’m looking at funding First Tuesday and making it self-sustaining, we’re planning our next lot of events at Blue Stockings.  And I’m out at different networks when I can.

My advice to you is that you can't be in business alone.  It's very lonely.  You need to find a support network that can help you to grow.  And if you don't find one that suits you, start your own! After all being entreprenurial is about spotting opportunities and filling them, and I'm sure if your town is missing a fantastic business network you can't be the only one who thinks so.

We all need people to look out for us and to remind us that we’re special, support us and give us the confidence to grow.  Networks and friendships are the most important thing, not success and money, because when we’re gone we want people to be able to say ‘She was great, wasn’t she!’.

Title image by Ursula Kelly Photography