With all the strides women have made in business in recent decades, it’s hard to imagine that not too long ago, things were a whole lot different.
Judy Suiter, a behavior analyst and performance advisor whose firm, Competitive Edge, Inc., boasts an impressive client list, including United States federal agencies and several Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies, remembers it well. “There was no kind of organization for women. We couldn’t become members of Rotary,” she recalls.
Driven by the desire to help women realize their potential and satisfy their need to give back, Suiter and a group of local businesswomen founded the “Working Women’s Network.”
The group of about 10 to 15 women would meet once a month at Flat Creek Club in Peachtree City. “We started the organization so we could share stories, challenges, and successes and create a professional organization so we could be taken seriously.” But not everyone supported the women. “The men would laugh at us when we walked into Flat Creek Club because we were in suits,” Suiter recalls.
The men didn’t laugh long. Suiter found out about the American Business Women’s Association (ABWA) and contacted the national office to find out how to start a chapter. In 1982, Suiter and a group in Fayette County founded the McIntosh Chapter of the ABWA.
Sharlene Alexander, a Charter member and successful business consultant, remembers the newly-established chapter’s first meeting. The business women met at Frady’s, a restaurant owned by former two-term Peachtree City mayor Herb Frady and his wife, Shirley. She said ABWA filled a need for women to connect and support each other in business.
“When all of us joined, we didn’t know what it was,” Alexander recalls. “Helping women develop leadership skills was the big thing. It was a group of local businesswomen and I was glad to meet people,” she says.
Membership grew, and the group was able to attract high-profile speakers, including prominent professional women from Atlanta, such as WSB-TV news anchor Monica Kaufman and Pat Malone, then the highest-ranking woman at Delta Air Lines, to speak about professional development-related topics. Eventually, ABWA sponsored several seminars and offered them to men and women. They opened the seminars to men so they could see the women meant business.
“Ours was the one organization where you could be a company president or own your own little cupcake company. It didn’t matter, as long as you were a business woman,” says Suiter.
Suiter herself has held multiple offices for ABWA over the years, including President. She has also been named the chapter’s “Woman of the Year” and “Business Associate of the Year.” But she says that even though women have made a lot of strides in the business world, we still face a unique set of professional challenges.
“People are working so hard,” she says. “Between their job and family and church, there’s no one to do the committee work.” But Suiter doesn’t buy the excuse that women today are too busy to find the time to continue the work ABWA was created to do. “All of us were married with children,” she says. “We made time. We had to cook. There were no microwaves. There wasn’t even a burger joint in this town!”
“A lot of people, a lot of women, think the battle is over,” she continues, pensively. Suiter, who has trained more than 450 organizations and 55,000 people around the globe, says she is often in executive settings where there are no women. She cites recent statistics which reveal that the number of women CEOs in Georgia companies is on the decline. “The battle is not over. Back then, we had a lot more commitment to make sure we made our mark. We were trailblazers. We still need people to be trailblazers,” she says.
Teri DeMarco, ABWA president since 2010, agrees. “If everyone does their share of one to two hours a month, the group will prosper, and we all benefit. It’s a matter of getting the ladies to want to be engaged. It’s what brings communities together and makes them stronger.”
DeMarco says the McIntosh chapter is growing, and true to its roots, continues its tradition of bringing some of the best, most powerful women in business to speak at the group’s monthly meetings. Recent speakers include Talent Builders’ CEO Barb Giamanco and Allure magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Linda Wells.
Also high on ABWA’s agenda is raising money for their annual scholarship awards. Each year, the group awards one scholarship to a young woman in high school. DeMarco says this year, 40 women applied for the scholarship. The chapter submits the applicant’s names to the national ABWA chapter, which ultimately chooses the recipient.
ABWA also raises money through its yearly Vidalia onion sales fundraiser, which the group just finished. They’re also planning their first Women’s Expo for the fall.
Giving back and giving women all the tools they need to succeed is what ABWA is all about, a mission Sharlene Alexander has never lost sight of. “Had people not helped me, I never would be where I am now,” she says. “I’ve had a few male mentors, but it’s been the support of the women that has helped me to get where I am today.”
The ABWA meets the second Tuesday of each month at Towne Club at Peactree City, 201 Crosstown Drive, at 6:30 p.m. To learn more about ABWA, visit their website, http://abwa.org or call Elizabeth Dresden at 770-241-2167.