The New Networking

Mary Aitken of Toronto’s Verity Group gives an inside look at the power of women

For 15 years, downtown Toronto has been home to Verity, a women’s club housed in a former chocolate factory that includes 62,000 feet of meeting rooms and co-working spaces, a spa, gym, restaurant, bar and boutique hotel. One of its guiding principles is that “genuine business and personal networking should be driven by organic relationships that turn into valued friendships and mentors,” and to that end, the club offers a variety of ways for women to socialize, learn and connect. Verity’s members are drawn from a very diverse cadre of achievers who are executives , entrepreneurs, artists, cultural leaders and not for profit managers. Here, Wengage speaks with Verity’s founder and managing director Mary Aitken to get her take on the power of networking.

When you wanted to start Verity, what kind of reaction did you get?

In terms of property, I was [initially] looking for between 40,000 and 50,000 square feet. At that time that was a huge amount of space in a downtown building which would represent a million dollars in rent a year and nobody was keen to sign a lease with a women’s club. But there were 150 women here in Toronto who came forward to be founding members, so that was a good start. I started to build and here we are 15 years later with about 800 members.

The 150 women who came forward obviously thought it was a good idea. What were they telling you?

They thought that should be a place in Toronto where women could form a community to help each other. At the time, women had become well qualified to assume more senior positions in every type of organization. Why then were we not going forward faster? Because in many cases we lacked a network. But women had bought into the idea “There needs to be more solidarity. We need to be helping each other more and mentoring younger women.”

Why do you think networking that comes from an authentic place can be so powerful?

Well, networking has a number of purposes. The guys have always used it. They’ve always understood about clubs; they get why a network is critical to building their business. Not just from getting business and giving business, but the mentoring piece which just comes naturally to them. We women haven’t always been out there. It’s only in the last 25 years that we’ve really taken our place in the workforce. So [that approach to networking] was not natural to us. We get dragged between work and home, the responsibilities of the family, small children and elder care. We’re pretty busy, and finding time and resources to be part of a community seems like just another thing on the “to do” list.

So, it’s about being a part of a community that is not just a networking group. It’s a brick and mortar establishment that they can walk in at any time just to have a glass of wine after a lousy day or turn up casually at their club for an event of interest. There are always people there to chat, to learn from or to have a laugh or two. Most importantly however, it happens all the time that chance encounters at Verity lead to revelations and epiphanies where problems weighing heavily on a member are solved by a few words from another member who has by chance faced the same problem. Men understand that this is one of the most important benefits from belonging to a club and Verity Members do too.

Mary Aitken, Founder & Managing Director, The Verity Group of Companies