The Personal Connection: The Value of In-Person Training for Women Business Owners
Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a series that takes a closer look at entrepreneurs as part of a wider movement for women’s empowerment. We’re following five women participating in the year-long Vital Voices GROW Fellowship as they progress through their training and reflect on the program’s usefulness to their businesses and their leadership development. Read other posts in the series here.
“Why bother getting people together, when we can just meet virtually?” With the increasing ease to making real-time contact half a world away, this question is not going away – especially in business and education. It has ramifications, therefore, for programs designed to train, equip and empower small and medium enterprise (SME) owners globally – such as the VV GROW Fellowship.
Over the past six months, fellows in this program have been steadily rethinking and rebuilding their business growth plans based on what they’ve learned through webinars, homework assignments, peer calls, coaching sessions and, most recently, attending an in-person training. At this training, 64 of this year’s fellows met at three regional sites (in Mexico City, Cape Town and Dubai) over four packed days to work with trainers, network, set growth goals and solidify their plans for reaching them. It is costly, in terms of time, money and environmental impact, to convene this type of event, especially when the five fellows I had previously interviewed were happy with the fellowship’s online training. So I wanted to know what value was added by meeting up in-person. And the fellows spoke:
SAUDAT SALAMI (owner, Easyshop Easycook Services Limited, Lagos, Nigeria)
Nathan Rauh-Bieri: To set the context for us, what was the in-person’s format like?
Saudat Salami: It was packed. Day one was a business fair where we all showcased our companies. Each participant had a storyboard and we all got to talk about our journey, our purpose, our goals. I think this broke ground for us as it helped us better appreciate what brought each of us to VV GROW and what we intend on taking away. We covered a lot of topics in the subsequent days.
NRB: In your view, how did the virtual training prepare you for the in-person?
SS: Because we (had) homework virtually, now we had the opportunity to discuss some of the challenges we were having in doing those assignments. We had to redo our mission statements, our driving force, our Business Model Canvas – some of us had to change them totally, because by the time we had finished, our goals were not big enough.
NRB: It seems that building a sense of support was also a priority. Did the training succeed?
SS: Yes. You know, the SME journey can be very lonely. It is very lonely being a businesswoman. So you have to lean on each other. We had this Sister Circle event. We came together late one night and talked about our journey, our fears and our experiences outside of business. Personal experiences beneath the mask we all wear every day. We cried, we laughed and we were vulnerable. After this event we sealed our bond as sisters and we created a support system which will grow long after the program. I think the in-person and the Sister Circle have to be compulsory every year (of the fellowship), because it allows us to share experiences with contemporaries across borders.
ISABELLE L. MEVS (co-founder and CEO of Stars Industries S.A. (SISA), Port-au-Prince, Haiti)
NRB: You could have gone through the program by virtual means alone. What was gained by meeting in-person?
ILM: Taking time away from the business and from our daily routine made us stop and be in a place where we would focus on the business and work on the action plan without the day-to-day disturbances. Being part of the community and spending time with the group, listening and getting to know the fellows, created bonds that would never be able to exist in a virtual training. A lot of us face the same challenges, even though we are in different countries and have different cultures. A WhatsApp group, including all the fellows, was created and we are able to communicate practically every day.
NRB: How else have you kept the training fresh?
ILM: When I came home, I shared my experience with my staff and my employees, shared the vision, and explained the action plan. Delegating is not something I am used to doing. I used to make all of the decisions. I’ve found that involving my staff, letting them express their opinions and giving them the opportunity to participate in brainstorming sessions, makes them more receptive and more valued.
NRB: How was this training different than others you’ve attended?
ILM: On the other trainings, I got the information, got back home, and tried to apply what I had learned. I did not experience any follow-up or support after the trainings. What makes the VV GROW program different is being part of a community, a network. The program does not stop (there).
LINA KHALIFEH (founder and trainer, SheFighter, Amman, Jordan)
NRB: Tell me more about the peer-support aspect of the training.
LK: It was useful to sit as mentors to each other. We are really all playing the same game. Everybody has a business and they want to grow it. We are walking on the same path. The fact that we have a strong connection and network helps us find our path in different markets.
NRB: How did the training facilitate this networking?
LK: There was lots of group training – so you have to get to know other women. They did many games and activities. They would change the seats every four or five hours. We had fast-pitching in front of everybody, where we would get to know each other’s businesses and what they do. It was good to get to know them and talk about how we can support each other in our businesses. (For example) they told me, if you want to franchise to Lebanon or Egypt, we can help you find connections to the market. So it was really good to meet other women in the Middle East.
NRB: What were your next steps after the training?
LK: When I went back to Jordan, I started planning the whole year. I focused right away on how I’m going to get more clear goals and work more on the system, the franchise, the manuals, everything – so that when someone comes to me and says, “I want to open a SheFighter in Dubai,” I can say, “Yeah, I have the whole system.” So I decided to work more on planning beyond (the present) company; I started taking it more seriously than before.
CLAUDIA ESPARZA PATIñO (founder and general manager of Nanas & Amas, Lima, Peru)
NRB: How did the virtual prepare you for the in-person?
CEP: Before, I wasn’t used to some terms and concepts – the Business Model Canvas, for example. So I arrived prepared to learn much more than if I had not participated in the virtual training. It’s a need.
NRB: Do you think the in-person component is also a need? If so, why?
CEP: The two types of training complement each other. … Some of the important decisions I made after the in-person training were because of (the fellows). For example, speaking to a fellow who has also franchised her business made me realize, if I want my business to succeed, I need to make it successful in one place and then replicate that situation in other places, and it’s going to take time, because everything that is important takes time. (Before,) I thought I could launch 10 offices next year. I was in a rush, worried because I wasn’t getting there. Speaking with my friend made me slow down and rethink it.
NRB: What else have you rethought?
CEP: When I had my coaching session, I was wondering how to get my team committed to the financial results I wanted. (The VV coach) made me realize that if you have people who want to be in your business, enjoy it there, and know why they are doing what they are doing – when you have a business culture, everything starts to behave in the way it is supposed to behave. I thought I had a business culture. After speaking with him, he gave me the last question, “How many people work for you, Claudia?” I answered, “Eight.” And he said, “No, they work with you, not for you.” Just a question made me rethink everything about my business.
LAUREEN RWATIRERA (co-founder and vice president of learning solutions, Accelerate Performance Consultants, Johannesburg, South Africa)
NRB: Now that you’re back, how are you taking your business growth plan forward?
LR: Having meetings early in the morning with my staff and chatting with everybody so that it’s not just Laureen’s action plan, but the company’s action plan. I never used to do that. Now, every morning, it’s “What are you working on? OK, I think you should prioritize this. This is what I’m going to be focusing on today.” And using that as a way to prioritize the key issues, so that even as we are working on the action plans, we’re not losing sight of the stuff that needs to get done. (This work is) really about transforming not just the lives of your employees but making an impact on the continent.
NRB: I know you have both professional and personal experience with trainings. What’s your take on the value of virtual vs. in-person?
LR: Having experienced both, the virtual training in this fellowship has been better than anything that I’ve experienced in the past. The way the assignments are organized helps you look over the business constantly. But I think the in-person training really helps you to concretize everything that you’ve learned. … Engaging with other fellows is one of the best things about the fellowship: There’s really no facades, no smokes and mirrors. It’s just you and other women, and you’re supporting each other. It would have been difficult to achieve that without the in-person training. Somebody can actually say, “No, Laureen, that’s consult jargon – make it real for me.” I’d never be able to catch that feedback if we were just talking virtually. And that is only established, I think, when you’re eyeball to eyeball.
When it is done well, meeting provides invaluable connection, learning and growth. Saudat, Isabelle, Lina, Claudia and Laureen describe substantial gains in their businesses as a result of gathering in-person with a cohort of their peers. To highlight some of their specific insights:
1. In-person trainings provide intentional space, time and perspective away from the busy workflow facing SME owners on a daily basis.
2. Virtual training works with in-person training by teaching fellows the basics, helping them take deep looks at different aspects of their business, beginning to acquaint them with trainers and other fellows, and initiating the process of reflecting on where they want to go – all before arriving. By providing a shared vocabulary and concepts on which to build a common foundation, fellows can arrive at an on-site training ready to jump into brainstorming and planning where it happens best: live, with peers, staff and expert coaches. When these modes of training are conjoined, participants learn and grow more.
3. When people rub shoulders in a group setting, they can more easily network, exchange ideas and peer-coach. Fellows’ experiences with implementing new business angles and peer-coaching after their meet-ups (g., using WhatsApp groups) confirm that real contact strengthens future connection – especially when support is built into the program’s design.
This last point is a particular strength of the VV GROW Fellowship. Over four days, fellows move beyond co-learners alone to “sisters,” or “mentors,” providing one another a sense of solidarity in work and life, challenging each other, making connections and spurring on one another’s growth. Vulnerability with one’s peers is, as fellows intimate above, integral to the VV GROW Fellowship model of business acceleration. Those wishing to empower SMEs through training programs would do well to consider how the Vital Voices training design intentionally cultivates personal connection and accelerates participants’ growth in ways that computer-mediated interaction, on its own, simply cannot.
We will check back in with the five fellows – Saudat, Laureen, Isabelle, Lina and Claudia – at the end of their year-long fellowship in June to learn where they wanted to take their businesses through the fellowship, and whether they got there.
About: The ExxonMobil Foundation is the primary philanthropic arm of Exxon Mobil Corporation in the United States, providing funding globally to improve basic education, promote women as catalysts for development and combat malaria in developing countries.
About: The Vital Voices Global Partnership invests in women leaders who improve the world, partnering with leaders from more than 140 countries who advance economic opportunity, increase political and public leadership, and end violence against women.
Nathan Rauh-Bieri is program coordinator of education at the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan.