When Michelle Dunn wanted help, she went looking for other women business owners. Recently divorced with two small children, Dunn wanted help growing her business, which sells personal-finance books and classes. Too busy to go out for in-person networking events, Dunn found what she needed on the internet--at Digital Women, an online networking group for women entrepreneurs.

She has been an active member since Digital Women started in 1998, asking questions on its forums and learning more about how to sell her wares. She's found help designing her website, and another member now serves as her web host. Now that her kids are older, she also does in-person networking--with the women-only New Hampshire-based organization Women Inspiring Women

Why women-only groups?

"You can get help, keep your sanity, get other opinions and talk with other moms who might also be working from home with little kids," she says.

When it comes to networking, apparently, men really are from Mars and women from Venus. In this post-feminist era, you'd think co-ed networking would work fine, but many women business owners say they prefer to stick to their women-only groups.

In the past decade or so, there's been a boom in women's groups that mirrors the growth in the number of woman-owned businesses (see chart). They're now more than 8 million strong, making up nearly one-third of all U.S. businesses, the Center for Women's Business Research reports.

Women networkers say they relate better to other women business owners, who share their compassionate, helpful approach to networking. Some women find online camaraderie in virtual networking groups such as Digital Women. Other groups offer everything from help finding business financing or a mentor to in-person classes and events. Many offer more than one membership level, with extra services and event discounts going to higher-paying members.

Women's groups have continued to grow because women feel more at ease in all-women groups, says experienced networker Annette Walden Mason, whose Painted Lady Enterprises sells greeting cards and promotional items.

"We're more nurturing, we're more caring, and we generally want to help each other," she says. "Also, a lot of women go into businesses that appeal to women--that's their target audience. Maybe they do direct sales or sell jewelry. So women's networking groups are a natural place for them."

Mason is a licensee of the Atlanta-based networking group The Joy of Connecting, which offers casual, in-person networking in small groups that meet in members' homes--just one example of the different styles in which these groups deliver their services. Downtown Women's Club offers online learning, community forums and in-person networking, all for a flat $49 a year. It also has an affiliate partner program where members can earn referral fees.

Another group, Ladies Who Launch, has drawn ambitious women who dream bigger than being a one-person company. Founder Victoria Colligan says LWL recently added two new workshops that appeal to the organization's two main member segments--a four-week Incubator Intensive for startups, and The Fresh Entrepreneur, a business growth and branding class.

The downturn also may have spurred growth in women's networking. Colligan says women are less focused on work-life balance issues now and are more serious about making their businesses succeed. LWL has a lifestyle and work-balance focus, but Colligan says that's taking a back seat in this economy.

"Women really want to learn how to make money and be able to support themselves," she says.

Many newer groups are using a business model popular at social networking sites such as LinkedIn, and offer a free membership level. This allows women to get involved and get a taste of the group before deciding to ante up for more costly service levels.

The likely queen of that pack is Wild Women Entrepreneurs, which brings a young, kicky snap to the networking scene. The WildWE, as it's known, reports more than 50,000 members at its free level. The group, which turns 5 years old this year, offers broad online resources, in-person events, professional coaching and financial services.

Founder Ja-Nae Duane was working with Rise, a precursor to LinkedIn, when she spotted the need for more women's networking options.

"Women network differently," she says. "I thought I needed to help women get back to a sense of community."

The wide variety of women's networking groups represents a big change from a few decades back, when women business owners struggled to find affinity groups where they felt at home. In the 1970s, there weren't many places where a woman business owner could network with just women. Many trudged to local chamber of commerce events but didn't necessarily feel at home there. The primary women-only group was NAWBO--the National Association of Women Business Owners--which began helping women's-lib-era entrepreneurial women build their businesses.

NAWBO's still going strong, now helping 21st century women entrepreneurs with one of the broadest arrays of support services around. Among its member benefits today are product and service discounts from the organization's many partners, legislative advocacy on issues important to women owners and annual awards.

For information about networks dedicated to moms and mom entrepreneurs, see "Use Mom Communities to Make Money."

Pick Your Flavor
There's a women's networking group for every taste and budget. Some are long-established and some fairly new; some are online only, while others hold in-person events or offer one-on-one mentoring. Consider this a small sampler of the large assortment of women-focused networking opportunities out there.
 
Group/Site Founded Members Services Cost
Digital Women 1998 17,000 all-online support for entrepreneurs Free-$47
eWomenNetwork 2000 "thousands" 800,000-person e-mail list personal online profile, members-only events,
database access, online forums
$290+$16.95/mo
The Joy of Connecting 2002 non-member; 15,000 have participated intimate, in-person networking events in private homes $25 a meeting
Ladies Who Launch 2002 nearly 4,000 in-person meetings and events, online resources, free ads $25-$450/mo
Mompreneurs 2003 3,000+ online forums, marketplace, help with work/life balance Free-$25/mo
National Association of Women Business Owners 1975 7,000 comprehensive networking and business growth help $225-$670
varies by  locale
Wild Women Entrepreneurs 2005 50,000+ 2,000 paid events, classes, funding assistance, online resources, activities free for paid members Free-$43/mo.