Working Women of Tampa Bay celebrate 12 years of networking

To mark the 'lucky dozen' birthday of Working Women of Tampa Bay (WWOTB), founder Jessica Rivelli celebrated with members June 10 at the Red Mesa Cantina rooftop in St. Petersburg.

Participants raised their glasses to an organization that counts 600+ members to date, awards robust scholarships through the Working Women Foundation and supports female businesswomen -- pandemic or not. 

Beginnings

Jessica Rivelli was working in the Tampa TV news space when she started searching for networking options, and it was tough going. The recent boom of female entrepreneurs hadn’t occurred yet. Finding an organization that offered a balance of professional and personal connections proved near-impossible. So she did what any proactive entrepreneur does and created what she’d searched so hard to find. Soon thereafter, she quit her full-time more traditional job to run Working Women of Tampa Bay.

“I wanted to blend soft and hard skills and offer education with connection,” she says. “That meant networking and education and events.”

The response was instantly favorable. Twenty founding members offered support, including Nancy Vaughn, principal, PR & marketing director of the White Book Agency. Vaughn lauds WWOTB’s ability throughout the years to support local events and collaborations such as Tampa Bay Fashion Week.

“Over the past 12 years, Jessica has successfully grown her organization and provided resources, connections, and support to women who are growing their businesses and careers,” she says.

The inclusivity is widespread and electric; members abound in various stages of career advancement. From entry-level to executive, startup ingenue to experienced entrepreneur, the combination of women lends itself to valuable networking opportunities. This is more than a meet-and-greet excuse to exchange business cards. Since 2016, the WWOTB has actively supported women-owned businesses.

The Working Women Foundation

Rivelli and her members are always looking to help others. Proceeds from event admission and branded club merchandise sales are funneled toward seed money for women-owned businesses; in 2019, WWOTB launched The Power of 100 within The Working Women Foundation and revealed how dedicated members are to ‘paying it forward.’

The idea is straightforward: Donors pay a $100 fee to attend a lunch, during which three video pitches are played. Attendees vote for which of the female entrepreneurs will receive seed money. Funds have gone to entrepreneurs like Karen McGinnis, owner of The Florida Farmhouse Market in Seffner, whose presentation addressed the challenge of visibility (or lack thereof). Thousands of vehicles zoom past her market on busy U.S. Highway 92, she says. Curb appeal is a must to entice those commuters to stop and browse.

Thanks to the Power of 100 award, a red Volkswagen and 1968 Rambler sit in the parking lot, attracting attention. Plywood signs showcase the antiques, vintage finds, and collectibles inside. The picturesque business is now much more visible.

Before she received the award, McGinnis already admired the organization’s reach. She has worked hand-in-hand with WWOTB throughout the last several years in different outreach settings and knows firsthand how much the organization uplifts the community.

“What I love most about WWOTB,” she says, “is that it is an organization full of women entrepreneurs and like-minded individuals who are working to uplift and inspire other females in the Tampa Bay area.”

To date, WWOTB has given away $75,000 to support more than 100 woman-owned businesses. And Rivelli, who first started the seed money outreach as a side project, counts the award as the best part of her job.

COVID response

When COVID hit, those fundraising lunches stopped. The in-person events so coveted by members did too. A vestige of pre-pandemic times, March 3, 2020 marks the date of the last in-person gathering. Mayor Jane Castor was the speaker; there was a palpable feeling in the room that this would be the last such occasion for a while.

“It was a challenge to go from classic networking, but we switched to virtual events immediately,” says Rivelli.

At the height of quarantine, members could tune in to seven events a week via Zoom. Experts curated from Rivelli’s rolodex of speakers spoke on topics like LinkedIn, securing funding for women-owned businesses and much more. It was the perfect storm, Rivelli says, for establishing a robust online educational program with talented female presenters. 

Since the beginning of the COVID crisis, WWOTB has produced 200+ virtual events, and Rivelli has attended every single one. She counts the Zoom era as a silver lining of the pandemic and her favorite regular event as the ‘virtual coffee’ she leads every week. Women drink java (or not) in a casual setting and discuss topics as diverse as If you could purchase any car, what would it be? and How do I market to my clientele? It’s the professional meeting the personal, that sharing of soft and hard skills that Rivelli has always sought to balance.

“The way we responded to COVID solidified our commitment to our members,” she says. “We’ll keep some of the virtual events and meetings for sure going forward – and I’m so glad we could be there for members during this uncertain time instead of ‘going dark.’” 

Future plans

Between forkfuls of lunch, members will soon be able to vote again in-person for female business owner seed money awards. Small face-to-face events have resumed; June brought small meetups and the birthday celebration. Going forward, members can look for in-person and virtual options to connect. Throughout it all, Rivelli looks back on the last 12 years and sees success from multiple angles.

“As someone who was chained to a desk for so long, I love the flexibility and lifestyle of heading WWOTB,” she says. “I’m so glad I created it.”
 

Read more articles by Amy Hammond.

Amy Hammond is a freelance writer and author of children’s books that encourage the next generation to attend college. When not indoctrinating youth about the necessity of higher education, she enjoys exploring the paradise that is her St. Petersburg home. She holds a degree in Public Relations from the University of Florida and a Masters in Secondary English Education from the University of South Florida. Her work has appeared in such venues as the Tampa Bay Times. Children’s Book Titles by Amy Hammond include: When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Gator; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a ‘Nole; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Bull; When I Grow Up, I’m Bama Bound; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Tiger.
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