Like many great ideas, it started over a couple of drinks
Tom Callahan and Brian Blatz, two businesspeople who met through networking events and worked nearby each other in Central New Jersey, sat down in 2010. They talked about how a networking group in Central New Jersey might specifically support its LGBT community, a need that did not seem to be met by other groups.
“Most LGBT-related groups are based in big cities or where there are highly concentrated LGBT populations,” said Callahan, who works for an elder-care law firm as a crisis manager. “But out in the heavily residential suburbs, there is a large LGBT population and businesses that are underserved by those city-based groups. Because it is difficult to draw people from the cities into the suburban business communities. We wanted to create something right where it’s all happening in our home areas, to draw upon the talent and interest of the people right here.”
Networking With Style is a group of LGBT businesspeople and consumers who attend a quarterly party to exchange business and organizational ideas, engender new ideas, and give exposure to their endeavors. It was born when Callahan and Blatz decided to have a simple party at Blatz’s Jamesburg bistro restaurant, Fiddleheads. They met with friends who had outsize access to the LGBT community — Brian Shapiro, who at the time was a board member of the New Jersey Gay Men’s Chorus, and Peter Frycki, the publisher of New Jersey’s LGBT magazine, Out in Jersey. As a group they contacted their networks of LGBT people to invite them to the first Networking With Style, on Jan. 11, 2011.
Networking With Style dealt with a snowstorm for its first party
“We had no idea who was actually going to show up,” Blatz recounts. “We invited dozens of people via letters, emails, phone calls and Facebook. I told all of my LGBT customers about it. The chefs at Fiddleheads made some great appetizers. We were ready, but apprehensive — is this going to amount to anything? And then there was a snowstorm forecasted. But we went ahead with it anyway. ‘Weather, schmeather,’ Tom said. We opened the door and hoped for the best.”
“And 35 people showed up for the first event. Some wondered what the catch was — would there be a presentation for a time-share, or perhaps a multilevel marketing program?” Blatz chuckles at the memory.
“We just told them we wanted to welcome them to Fiddleheads and get everyone connected. They were somewhat surprised that we threw a free party just for the LGBT community.”
The snow started shortly after the doors opened. But by the time the night drew down at around 9:30 pm, there was already two inches on the ground and no one had left.
We knew NWS was a success and we were on to something
“People were connecting left and right. Exchanging business cards, talking animatedly, sharing what their businesses and organizations were doing, what kind of new people they wanted to meet in networking groups. We knew we were on to something,” says Blatz.
The group held three more parties that year. Later on, they brought in Bonnie Kantor, owner of a graphic design company and Webmaster of NJGayLife.com; Steven Russell, a self-employed yoga instructor and massage therapist; and Joe Renga, a board member of the fledgling NJ LGBT Chamber of Commerce, as cohosts of the event. More features were added, such as a BYOB component, name tags, a PA system for attendees to speak publicly to the group. Its mission expanded to include all LGBT people, not just networking businesspeople.
“We realized that we needed consumers as well as ‘vendors,’ so to speak. We want all the business owners to reach potential clients and expand their personal networks as well,” said Blatz. “Plus, many of these consumers like to spend their money within the LGBT community. This puts them in touch with one another. And people simply make new friends too or socialize with people whom they already know from these events.”
The group is now entering its seventh year. NWS is ensconced as an institution in the central New Jersey LGBT community. It holds a party every three to four months at Fiddleheads on a Tuesday, a night the restaurant is closed. New people visit all the time. And dozens of different professions are represented, including attorneys, health-care providers, fitness trainers, psychotherapists, printers, caterers, translation services, writers, photographers, teachers, and artists. Representatives from LGBT-related nonprofits often attend to spread news of their charitable and educational work. Even elected officials and other public servants attend, so as to hear the voices of the LGBT community.
NWS is one of the most productive networking events around
More than 1,000 people have visited NWS. Many have told high-impact stories. Casey Oakes, a former staffer for Sen. Frank Lautenberg, recalls publicly asking the attendees at one meeting for contacts within the LGBT community for military veterans, to create a video about their stories. Before he left Fiddleheads that night, he had all the contacts he needed to conduct the project. Another business owner followed up on a conversation she had at one meeting and landed an $8,000 contract within a week. One artist had her work exhibited at Fiddleheads, and a story about it published in Out in Jersey, after she attended a NWS party.
The New Jersey LGBT Chamber of Commerce began its initial organizing work through contacts at the Fiddleheads parties. Local chapters of national organizations such as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network attend NWS, and many nonprofit agencies utilize NWS to recruit new volunteers and help with fundraising. Fiddleheads has even hosted several small same-sex weddings, booked through the NWS connection.
So much energy and talent is at each NWS event
“It’s never the same people,” says Callahan. “It changes every time, with new energy, different conversations, different vibes. It has this open-ended possibility factor every time we have an event, that if you come in with an open mind and ear, you have no idea what might show up in your space. There is so much great talent and energy in New Jersey’s LGBT community, and in our own small way we want to connect it and strengthen it as an economic bloc that supports its own.”
Blatz still gets excited as each event approaches. “It gives Fiddleheads great exposure as a haven restaurant for LGBT people, and all of us as co-hosts see significant traffic in our businesses directly related to Networking With Style. It’s a win for everyone, plus it’s a lot of fun. Who doesn’t like a free party thrown just for them?”
Networking With Style has a Facebook page, listing each upcoming event, at FB.com/NetworkingWithStyle. For more information and to get on the invite list, call Fiddleheads at 732-521-0878, or any of the co-hosts, or email Fiddleheads@FiddleheadsJamesburg.com.