Let Your Freak Flag Fly
Most entrepreneurs in the Chicago area, men and women, have at least heard of Women Entrepreneurs Secrets of Success (WESOS). Now that it’s expanding outside of Illinois, many other women will get the chance to experience this unique style of networking. Founder and CEO Jean Lavallie saw a need for a safe, women-identified-only networking space, and found herself leading one—almost by accident. The journey from unemployable to successful business owner taught Jean some valuable lessons about community building which, little did she know, would come in handy when WESOS started to “take on a life of her own.”
Jean was basically invisible to the traditional business world trying to get a job at 50 years old, but her job-hunting experiences would motivate her to foster a community where women would be seen for their skills and talents, not their work history.
How to Be Seen
At her first WESOS meeting, Jean was asked to “tell us what you do and what your passion is” and almost started crying on the spot. Nobody in the other groups had taken the time to ask her such a big question, much less with an audience. She through it, and she received a lot of support and learned about some valuable resources in that first meeting.
This seems to clash with one of the biggest challenges women face in business: the fact that they’re not being seen. Jean provided some clarity on this point: “You have to show up as who you are.” Women can be so afraid to speak up because “they want to be seen in the light that they want to be seen in,” but the nerves melt away when they accept that it’s much easier to show up as themselves.
The importance of being “seen” shows up during the part of each WESOS meeting when a member of the group will give a presentation. Plenty of women start out terrified of this prospect, receive support from their WESOS sisters and build their confidence speaking at meetings until they can add public speaking to their business model. Jean claims that WESOS is the safest environment for a woman to come out and “be seen.”
Many women find WESOS when they’re still on the starting line, with the beginnings of a new idea, or ready to start a new career and waiting for the boost of confidence they need to jump in. The wide range of experience levels allows members to both give and receive. New WESOS sisters learn to accept help, then turn around and help the lady behind them.
Why WESOS Works
When she took over the meetup.com group, Jean started putting some parameters around the group’s activities: she asked members to actively give and receive support, and when she warned against “catty” behavior, she found that most of her members were relieved. One of the biggest changes that made WESOS unique was her rule that there would be no selling in one-on-ones; that members would talk about themselves and their businesses, not their products.
These new guidelines and Jean’s leadership had an amazing effect on the group’s membership, which had surged to around 2,500 by 2015. Members started using the acronym “WESOS” on their own. The new challenges that came with a growing membership led Jean to partner up with Denise Schmidt, another unsuspecting woman who got invited to WESOS and found herself stepping into a leadership position. (Listen to the full interview for this great story!) [Note: Denise has since retired since this podcast was recorded - congrats to Denise!]
According to Jean, culture is the most important thing about WESOS. She maintains it by training new leaders personally and keeping her “inner circle” close. She crafted The Intention to instill WESOS values into leaders’ hearts and minds. At the start of each meeting, the leader recites:
“We are a thriving group of women entrepreneurs who are committed to cultivating authentic relationships while providing ongoing mutual support and resources for growing our businesses.”
Based on what she sees going on in WESOS, Jean believes we’re moving into an era of “true feminism,” especially looking back on the attitudes that existed when she was raising her kids and re-entering the job market. Women used to think they needed to take on “masculine energy” (shoulder pads, anyone?), but now they can become leaders while being themselves and manage their workload however they see fit. Where women once judged each other for their life choices, they are learning to support each other no matter what they choose to do. And where those with “feminine energy” have been eager to give and less open to receiving, Jean urges WESOS members to accept help.
“Let your freak flag fly.”
At the very center of this message, which aligns with WESOS philosophy, is the ability to be yourself and see your uniqueness as a source of value and a superpower. She asks her members: if you’re not willing to be an advocate for yourself, who will be?
Jean has come a long way with WESOS, and she's not stopping anytime soon! From the original meetup.com group of about 150 women, WESOS has grown to over 5,000 members, with several chapters in Illinois, and it’s expanding to other states. Listen to my interview with Jean on the Victorization podcast or go to wesosnetwork.com for information on becoming a member or starting your own chapter.