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Power in Numbers

When Angela Wong-Liao belonged to a networking group she wondered if she could get the same type of support without the membership cost. For her, networking is simply talking to individuals who share the same purpose, goals and determination to expand their business and social contacts. Wong-Liao thought networking should be free and she created a platform where small business owners in the 905 and 416 area have a place to get together, connect, and build relationships.

Not finding an existing fee-free networking group, Wong-Liao decided to create the Power Networking Group in 2002, an organization that met that demand. "My belief in networking is that the sky's the limit," she says. For her, attending these events is a significant part of building up a community of people around you and your business, not to mention an opportunity to meet prospective clients.

The first event was a simple lunch and was attended by colleagues and friends who knew her from various professional connections. Since then, the group has become a mix of seasoned networkers and newbies who come out once a month (excluding July and December). Last month, the group celebrated its 8th anniversary.

Wong-Liao, from Mississauga, is known as "The Money Lady" among her colleagues and friends, as she has over 28 years of experience in the financial industry. She is currently a mortgage agent working under the banner of Invis Financial Group, one of the biggest national mortgage brokerage companies in Canada. Before that, she worked with Scotia bank for 28 years. At first, the members included people from her financial circle including financial planners, bankers, insurance agents and lawyers. Now, that list has grown to small businesses, people in retail, dry cleaners, writers, massage therapists, neon sign producers and many others.

When she joined Invis, Wong-Liao recognized her own need to network and spread her message to potential clients. "I love networking. I love meeting new people," she says. "These days, the people who get business, they network."

Her vision of networking keeps the overhead low. The group doesn't have official members or the fees and costs that most entrepreneurs and self-employed have difficulty covering when they are just starting out. Instead, participants pay $22 each to attend a monthly lunch meeting (the cost covers the meal and microphone rental), and includes time for a one-minute presentation introducing themselves and what they do. There are door prizes too. The petty cash Wong-Liao has left over gets re-invested into nametags and other supplies.

Mary Ann Matthews, a seasoned networker and certified graphoanalyst since 1994 and owner of handwriting.ca, met Wong-Liao around the time she became the "Money Lady." They connected at a networking group that they didn't particularly like. It was then, Matthews says, that Wong-Liao decided to change how people networked, making it easier to simply start.

Matthews helps Wong-Liao organize the meetings, but also attends to promote her own business. As a handwriting analyst she needs to be "out there" telling people what she does. "If you are not appearing, you are disappearing," she says.

"Do I get a lot of direct business out of it? No, but people know people who know people," she says. "Sometimes you don't know where your next client is going to come from."

On average, 35 to 45 networkers come out each month. Out of that, about 25 to 30 per cent are new businesses that heard about the meetings from friends. Since Wong-Liao has been doing this for so long, there are about 100 businesses that she considered "seasoned networkers" who come out every month, on rotation. They are the ones that spread the word and invite new people.

"Networking is an art," she says. "The problem with a lot of people, they go and network with the mindset that they will collect business cards, but they never call those business."

Wong-Liao believes that is a waste of time. Over the past few years, she has seen a number of executives being laid off or their businesses going bankrupt. This trend has resulted in individuals rethinking their business strategies and future job prospects. They may be even thinking about what they want to do with their lives. It is those people she encourages to come to her events, the ones who are just starting over who may not have a huge marketing budget but want to connect with other businesses.

She encourages them through her own entrepreneurial story, but also supports the newcomers personally. The thought of getting up in front of a room and speaking publicly makes many people nervous. Wong-Liao recognizes that fear, but also knows that in order to spread the message, she needs to put people at ease. She'll stand up with them. She'll hold their hand. She'll start a talk and, she says, 30 seconds into the presentation business owners usually relax and talk about what they wanted too talk about.

"I believe in the entrepreneur spirit and that means freedom," she says. "They sky is the limit, and that means that I can choose with whom I want to deal with." With the average lifespan of an independent network group being two or three years, she has beat the odds. And while the group may be small and independent, Wong-Liao has no big plans for the future. Keeping it fee-free and simple is what works.

Anna Olejarczyk is a freelance writer based out of Mississauga.

Group photo courtesy of Alan Mckenzie

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