Betsy Aoki was almost all alone in her job. One of the few women in the male-dominated world of high technology, Aoki felt she had few places to go for networking and support.
Then she heard about Webgrrls, a networking group of women online, and decided to start her own chapter. Living in Seattle, near Microsoft and several other high-tech firms, she found a number of women who were in the same situation.
Webgrrls International (http://www.webgrrls.com) represents all corners of the work world--from programmers and business owners to students. Members look to the group for mentors, for solutions to technical problems, to network for job opportunities and to continue their education.
The Seattle chapter, which started humbly in the summer of 1995 at a coffee shop on Capitol Hill, now boasts 2,700 members and is growing at the rate of 50 per week. It is now the second-oldest and fourth-largest chapter of Webgrrls.
"For someone who's new to technology, it provides a comfortable place to learn," Aoki said. "For women who are already in the profession, it allows them to network and/or mentor. For women who are further along who just want a leg up, it provides that."
"I think the beauty of Webgrrls is that there is no stereotypical profile of the women involved," said Webgrrls founder Aliza Sherman of New York.
"Each chapter has its own flavor or slant that makes it more diverse. Because of that, a Webgrrl could be a mom with three kids, a girl just going to college, a grandmother starting her own Web design firm, an artist or an executive. It's truly that diverse."
Sherman, 32, has been online since 1989 and was looking to network with other women who were working on the Web after she had started her own Internet consulting group in January 1995. She found the personal Web pages of women around the world and started e-mailing them on a regular basis.
Sherman and her e-mail pen pals from the New York area decided to meet for the first time in April 1995 at a cyber-cafe in the East Village. By November, 200 women were gathering. Today, Webgrrls has 100 chapters worldwide with 30,000 members named after Sherman's own Web site--Cybergrrl Inc.--the first general interest site for women.
"My hope is that Webgrrls becomes an incubator for industry leaders," said Aoki, 34, who now works as a community project manager for ImproveMyBusiness.com, a business-to-business site. "It's not enough to be familiar or savvy with the technology; it's time to start the companies."
International benefits include an e-mail newsletter; list of members; job listings; discounts on industry events, software, hardware and electronic equipment; and online tutorials.
"You get out of Webgrrls as much as you put into it," said Anne Baker, 27, the current Seattle president who works at Internet marketing firm Avenue A Inc. "It's a neat sense of community."
Though a big part of Webgrrls is providing support, a more tangible aspect is networking.
"Webgrrls is a great resource for not only job hunting but to hear what's going on in the industry," said Amy Gwynne, 22, who works at WildTangent Inc., which creates 3-D technology and content for the Internet. "Plus it's a great place for women to look to others for answers to their questions."
Information on Webgrrls' Los Angeles chapter can be found at http://www.webgrrls-la.com.