A business group made for women


February 04, 2005|By Lisa Kawata | Lisa Kawata,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MARILYN JOHNSON has spent two years trying to get her business off the ground. She runs a sewing school and costuming company, MTM Design Studio, in Laurel.

And somewhere in the middle of working 12-hour days, raising teenage sons and pursuing a degree in fashion design, Johnson thought it would be a good idea to start a support group for businesswomen.

In October, For Women Only was born. The group was supposed to start in September, but the pipes burst in Johnson's studio, forcing the postponement.

The group aims to help working women find time for something they rarely make time for: taking care of themselves.

On the first Friday of each month, Johnson closes up shop early. She puts away the fabric, the scissors and pins. In their place, Johnson brings out coffee, soda and platters filled with veggies, cheese and crackers for the meeting.

"I decided to open the studio up for women to get together, to learn something, to bond with other women," said Johnson, sitting in her reception area amid displays of her handmade scarves and capes. "I see it ultimately becoming a monthly retreat."

Tucked in the rear of a cluster of commercial buildings in Laurel, the studio hardly resembles a retreat. But by 7 p.m., a contented buzz of conversation among a dozen or so women transforms the industrial interior into a cozy center of nurturing.

With For Women Only, Johnson has turned the traditional happy hour on its ear. Instead of winding down over drinks at a bar, group members find respite in listening to a speaker on relaxation techniques, or having a minifacial.

Quietly chatting about shared business concerns, creating a craft or doodling on sketchpads soothe their souls better than a glass of wine. The group also helps its members navigate the world of a working woman.

But more than the refreshments and networking, the relationships bring them back each month.

"Once you get there, you don't want to leave," said Sherry Clevenger, owner of Hands of Joy, a massage studio on Laurel's Main Street. Clevenger works at her shop and also teaches massage classes.

When she is not at work, she spends most of her days caring for others, including her aging mother and volunteering for a local hospice. Attending "For Women Only" gives her time for herself.

"It's wonderful. It's playful," Clevenger said.

Johnson and Clevenger met when Johnson worked at a Main Street coffee shop. Although they had not seen each other in a couple of years, when she founded the group, Johnson remembered Clevenger and invited her. First, Clevenger went just to network.

But last month, she decided to teach the women a form of bodywork, called "healing touch," which they could perform themselves. Eventually, the massage therapist wants to hold her own workshops in self-care for women. In the meantime, she will continue attending For Women Only.

Most of the women who have attended the sessions are Johnson's friends. Many are entrepreneurs and small-business owners who are trying to realize a dream and finding the journey can be difficult.

Sheila Abram, owner of the Rose Cottage, a gift shop of handcrafted goods, has known Johnson for years. They both live in North Laurel and met through child-centered activities - first Girl Scouts and then PTA. Abram recently moved her business from Savage Mill to Main Street. She went to a meeting of For Women Only thinking she would meet other businesswomen.

"It ended up being such a warm and inviting experience," said Abram. "We need to know that they're other people who are experiencing what we're experiencing."

She also approved of Johnson's plan to hold a raffle each month for charity and hopes that the philanthropic arm of the group can be expanded.

Building a business requires a lot of time, and marketing it costs money, something that small-business owners do not usually have, Johnson said. By blending the chance to network with a little learning in a relaxing environment, she has created a unique community of women that grows and changes with each meeting.

Planning the gatherings takes up about 10 hours a month of Johnson's time. She receives help from her friend Jennifer Ward, a consultant for the cosmetics company Arbonne International. Johnson and Ward met in a textile class at Baltimore City Community College. When Johnson began to confide in Ward about her ideas for a women's group, Ward gladly offered some marketing expertise.

"I'm glad I can support Marilyn," Ward said. "[The group is] both mainstream and holistic."

For Women Only meets at 7 tonight. The admission fee is $5 at the door. Information or directions: Marilyn Johnson, 301-604-4139.

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