Networking face to face can be a challenging commitment amid all our other responsibilities, especially as networking through social media becomes the standard — and is so much easier to accomplish. But some of Baltimore’s movers and shakers are pushing the boundaries of business happy hours, making it possible not only to build a strong and supportive group of business relationships, but also, in some cases, to gain close friends.
Christine Walsh is president and CEO of Alpha Graphics, a Baltimore- based print shop, but she is also the leader behind the city’s networking series, Cake & Whiskey. These informal gatherings, what Walsh calls “hobnobs,” are held quarterly across Baltimore to create a space for businesswomen to share in conversation and collaboration over a surprising combination of fare: cake and whiskey.
“Several years ago, I was at a women’s conference and in the swag bag that we all got was a magazine called Cake and Whiskey, and it was all about women leaders and entrepreneurs,” Walsh says. “In the back, they had a recipe for a bourbon whiskey drink and also for a cake. It was something I really enjoyed reading. There was also a section all about hobnobs and the importance of putting on these kinds of events, and for years, I hemmed and hawed until I decided to just have one.”
As she planned for the very first Cake & Whiskey hobnob, Walsh says, “I’m great at making connections and networking but not at event planning. So I went to my housemate, Stephanie Bradshaw, who is an event planner, and I told her about it. She says, ‘That is a really weird name!’ And I say, ‘I know, and that’s exactly why we’re doing it.’ We had the first hobnob in our apartment; the cake was in her suite, and the whiskey was in mine, and we had about 25 women there.”
Since that first gathering, the numbers have grown and now reach the hundreds. The venue clearly had to change as well, and each event is now held at a different location around the city, including the Rye Street Tavern, the Mt. Washington Mill Dye House, West Elm, Anthropologie, Sagamore Pendry and Anthem House. Despite this success, Walsh wanted to network even more.
At the beginning of 2018, she made it her goal to personally meet up with 50 women from Cake & Whiskey hobnobs before the end of the year.
“I have coffee with women who come to Cake & Whiskey, and we talk about our careers, and I take a selfie with each of them,” she says.
Walsh is well on her way of reaching her goal and so far has connected with some amazing women who represent different professions and backgrounds. “I met with Ann Shaffer, who was a curator at the BMA for 25 years; I met with Marianne McGinley of Lokal Photo, Jasmina Venecia, who co-owns Sweet Science Boxing in Fells Point, Amy Langrehr, the Charm City Cook, Sherlin Lane, who is a professional calligrapher,” Walsh says. “For me, it is all about getting to know people. My mantra is to create a relationship with a person first, and the business will come naturally. I would say about 90 percent of my clients are people I know. It is important to talk to people and have a conversation instead of just handing out your business card.”
Cake & Whiskey is a great example of today’s networking, says Peter Lorenzi, a management professor at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business. Instagram followers can find information about the group @alphagrap or under the hashtag #bmorecakenwhiskey and then sign up for an event. This is typical of how “social media is being used to create a network and an opportunity to meet face to face.”
Lorenzi recalls an entrepreneur he met years ago who said that prospective business owners knew they were ready to start their own business when their Rolodex was filled with the names and numbers of all the people who could help them start that business. Today, Instagram, LinkedIn and even text groups on someone’s phone have replaced the Rolodex to “cheaply and conveniently maintain little clusters, like your running group, people who work in finance, your friends from college,” he says.
The end goal is still the same. “You are building a Rolodex that facilitates all these other activities,” he says. And sometimes “it’s hard to tell where social media ends and old-fashioned networking begins.”
Enter social media influencer Sarah Antonieta, owner of design-and-staging boutique BMORE Chic. She is also the local events director for Baltimore’s branch of Network Under 40, another group that strongly believes in the junction of business and friendship.
“Networking is very important in today’s culture with the wide range of social edia use, because it helps you actually connect face to face with your community and assists in growing that relationship further,” she says.
As a business owner herself, Antonieta has a sense of how women, in particular, network and believes they should get out of their comfort zones and explore the opportunities available to them. “Women tend to have smaller, close-knit networks with deeper relationships rather than just seeing it as a way to get ahead,” she says. “A lot of women are joining professional organizations with people who share similar values. But it’s actually very beneficial to get outside of those groups and find people with varying industries and backgrounds to expand your reach and impact in your community.”
She is the perfect example: “Being involved with Network Under 40 in Baltimore has opened so many doors for me that I never thought possible,” she says. “I believe that it is important to get out there and meet people in your community who are making things happen. It inspires you and helps with your own personal growth.”