Jewish womens network builds friendships, business

Talk about making connections.

Debbie Cotton, a consultant with Kaiser Permanente, ran smack into caterer Elaine Binger in Oakland at a recent federation women's event.

It was the first time the two had met in nearly a quarter century.

"Elaine catered my bat mitzvah," a beaming Cotton, now 37, told the gathering of the Business and Professional Women's Division of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

Binger, owner of Soup to Nuts catering, says she attended the meeting because "I cater 95 percent to Jewish people, so I thought where better to meet them."

Establishing old connections — and creating new ones — is what the women's group is all about. That's a shift from the past, when the division's primary thrust was raising money for the federation.

That fund-raising mission hasn't been scuttled. But in this era of cell phones, pagers and overwired electronic planners, the women who run the division wanted to get a maximum punch from their meetings. "People have limited time," says co-chair Charlotte Salomon.

"You're always balancing if you're a business networking group or a Jewish philanthropic group and I think we're trying to multitask."

So Salomon and co-chair Laurie Earp set about scheduling bimonthly meetings on topics they thought would appeal to existing members and draw in new ones. They alternate meeting sites between Oakland and spots in Contra Costa County to be more accessible to their widely based constituency. And, probably most importantly, they set aside time at each meeting for members to introduce themselves and talk a little about their businesses.

"There had to be some reason to come to a Jewish businesswomen's group," said Salomon, a computer-law attorney from Pleasanton.

Earp, a fund-raising consultant from Oakland, says that now, for women who have little time to spare, "there's a greater incentive…to be able to schedule time with us."

The group's leaders say attendance has increased, with 35 to 50 women at each of the six events over the past year.

The meetings paid off, literally, for at least one member. She was looking for work, heard about a job at the Home for Jewish Parents during one of the group's gatherings and ultimately got hired, according to Salomon.

The division also is drawing upon the talents within its own membership roster as a source of speakers. At the May meeting in Oakland, financial planner Suzanne Krasna of Walnut Creek gave a presentation on "Preparing Financially for the Next Millennium."

Krasna, who joined the division about six months ago, said she sees it as a way to meet other Jewish women both professionally and socially. Because she is relatively new to Northern California, "the emphasis for me, personally, is being more part of our Jewish community," she said.

In turn, she said she was happy to give a financial presentation to the group.

The other events held in the last year have included a talk on how to market one's business as well as informal networking sessions. Participants have swapped ideas and traded favorite contacts from their Rolodexes. A dinner held in December featured a talk by Linda Gradstein, the Jerusalem correspondent for National Public Radio.

Members come from an "incredibly eclectic" assortment of occupations, according to Salomon. Among them: attorneys, massage therapists, real estate agents, financial planners, computer executives and a corporate party planner.

The Business and Professional Women's Division has a mailing list of about 1,300 in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

"We're trying to reach out to working women," said Salomon. "We're also reaching out to women who are looking for work or considering re-entering" the job market.

Networking, according to Earp, has an obvious appeal. "I think you find the women are looking for the opportunity to see one another, to be Jewish with one another and if they have that plus being able to promote their business…they enjoy that."