From Northwoods Commerce magazine
By Timi Eckes
Northwoods Commerce editor
It’s a dreary January day, but at Grace Legal in the small Lincoln County community of Gleason, the Northwoods winter seems to melt away as attorney Cana Laska recounts her travels to distant countries. In her office are exotic mementos, treasures she has brought home from her extensive travels. “I’m a person that really likes people’s stories,” Laska says. “I think hearing other people’s stories helps you understand your own culture, too.”
The Sheboygan native has recently gone through major changes in her life, moving to the Northwoods and opening her own practice just last year. She wasted no time, however, in making her presence known in this area and serves on the board of directors of the Saint Mary’s Hospital Foundation. Laska, who has worked as a missionary, is no stranger to serving others, having traveled to Haiti, Taiwan, China, South Korea, Vietnam, India and Uganda in order to teach, learn and volunteer. Among her accomplishments, she worked in partnership with Bishop Stuart University in Mbarara, Uganda, to open a Christian law school there.
In short, she’s someone who knows how to make things happen.
That’s an important attribute for the woman who recently became president of Northwoods Women in Business (NWIB), an organization that has undergone a major change of its own.
The group’s first president, Michelle Madl-Soehren, who founded NWIB in 2010, moved away from this area last summer. Madl-Soehren, who was the business development outreach specialist at Nicolet College, contributed more than her experience and expertise to the organization – she also brought to the table her access to the college’s considerable resources. When she moved away from this area last summer, NWIB leaders set about retooling the organization. “Northwoods Women in Business is in a transitional period,” Laska says, adding that the organization’s leaders have been restructuring NWIB so that the responsibility of leading it can be shared among more people. Along with Laska, the NWIB leadership board currently consists of vice president Kelly Greig of Edward Jones in Antigo, treasurer Jamie Burkart of Foenix Tax & Business Services in Antigo, and, in Rhinelander, secretary Asavari Krizenesky of Nerium International.
“The group will have some growing pains in learning how to thrive without a key partnership to a college,” Laska says, “but in that, there is also opportunity, as we can see a wider array of partnerships in all of the geographical locations where our membership resides.”
Like Madl-Soehren, Laska and other NWIB leaders are well aware of the value of having a group like NWIB in the area.
The importance of networking has long been recognized. Among other advantages, establishing connections among others in business and other organizations helps people learn, build their businesses, find new hires, gain referrals or even find new jobs.
According to the National Women’s Business Council, as of 2012 there were almost 10 million women-owned businesses in this country, up 27 percent from 2007. Also as of 2012, of those businesses that were non-farm and nonpublicly owned, 36 percent were owned by women, up from 28.8 percent in 2007.
Along with more women in entrepreneurial circles has come recognition of the differences between the ways in which men and women network among their peers. A 2009 article by Meghan Casserly in Forbes, for example, reports that men are more likely than women to ask directly for what they want from their connections, such as referrals, names of potential hires, jobs and so on. Women first tend to try to build relationships with their connections before asking them for what they want.
“I think a lot of the challenges women in business face are similar to the challenges men in business face,” Laska says, citing a tough economy and government expectations of businesses as examples. But she also notes differences in ways that men and women conduct business. “Women are thinkers and planners. Sometimes we’re not as bold in taking risks.”
That strong sense of caution can result in some women being reluctant to ask questions at gatherings, for fear of appearing to be unprofessional or unprepared. Meeting to share information and ideas with others in a non-judgmental setting can help lessen that reluctance. And that’s why it’s important to have an organization like NWIB (which, it must be noted, does welcome men) available to female entrepreneurs.
One goal on Laska’s agenda is to build membership. “We have a large amount of women who are already affiliated or connected to the group in some capacity, and what I hope to do is better engage the membership to allow for greater participation at events,” she explains.
Currently, NWIB doesn’t have a website. For now, Laska says, their Facebook page, which has about 500 followers, and their email list work well for communicating with members. The group meets monthly, and attendance averages from 10 to 15 people, depending on a particular month’s speaker and topic. For the last two years, NWIB has held the Northwoods Women’s Business Conference, a springtime event that proved to be quite popular. There won’t be a spring conference this year, but Laska says one is being planned for this fall.
Laska joined Northwoods Women in Business for networking purposes, but she also recognizes the organization’s educational value and wants to put continued emphasis on that. To that end, NWIB leadership has identified three pillars of the group’s educational aspect: business identity, marketing and communications; business finance, tax and legal matters; and business management and organization. “We will be rotating speakers according to the pillars,” Laska says, “to ensure that the educational needs of the members are being provided for.”
Laska’s curiosity about the world and its people, as well as her drive to help others and to see projects through will no doubt serve NWIB members well. Those same traits will also ensure that, despite the change it has gone through, the organization continues to serve those in the business community.
“The goal is for NWIB to be a safe place for businesswomen to go for advice, support and learning,” Laska says, “no matter what point they are at in establishing, operating or growing their business.”
For more information about Northwoods Women in Business or to be added to the group’s email list, visit facebook.com/NorthwoodsWomenInBusiness.