An African American Woman Seeking an Online Network

BlogHer Original Post
Young Women Laughing

I want to find a network of like-minded women of color. I want to join a community of dynamic women who are career-minded, preferably entrepreneurial. I would love to be a part of a group of women whose background and history are similar to mine, whose challenges reflect a similar and shared experience. Like the majority of women in the U.S. who use the Internet to blog, Tweet and update our statuses, I am looking for connection and friendship and support.

I love my connection with the fantastic BlogHer community, and I greatly value my friendships with the diverse groups of bloggers and writers and commenters that I have connected with online over the years. But I am, at this stage in my life, with older children and a budding business, in need of a more-structured, cultural connection that is specific to the woman of color experience.

I’d like to find a network that focuses on business — how to run a successful small business, how to brand oneself, and how to get the word out. But I’d also like to find a group that discusses personal challenges like relationships and kids ... and the best products to tame my natural hair.(You know, a black girl can’t use any ole thing on her hair!) And I’d like a place to discuss and share our common cultural connections. I want an online community where I can give back. Is that asking too much? Nope, I don’t think so.

So I have been looking. And as it turns out, I have discovered a few promising community options and am intrigued by the people behind them. LaShanda Henry has created a little fiefdom of cultural connectivity over at Many Shades of You Online and The BlackWomenNetwork. Henry is a web designer and work-at-home-mom who has, for the past ten years, been growing her crop of websites and networks into an interconnected web-world specifically for people of color. She is a whiz at design and an expert at brand development. But she clearly has a heart for all things African-American. Her networks include Black Business Women Online; The Black Mom’s Club; What Black Women Think; and the most recent addition, Social Media Sistas.

All of her networks are good-looking and well-populated. The Black Business Women Online has a million things going on. This network boasts over 8,000 members from very diverse backgrounds and business interests, ranging from college students to business headliners like Richelle Shaw, who owns a telephone company (as in a public utility) and was recently featured with Oprah in Black Enterprise Magazine. Henry showcases members and their success stories. She offers webinars and ebooks of her own and by others.

I was happy to see that she features new releases by black authors prominently on the main page. There are twenty discussion forums with subjects that run the gambit, though most of the topics are promotional -— members (and Henry) promoting their services and wares. Interestingly, the most active discussion topic by far is "Sistas Connect," where members can talk about anything and everything. And they do! Henry is very actively involved in the site. She contributes regularly in the forums and groups (there are over 300) mostly by promoting her members and her services. But despite the heavy presence of ads and promotions, the site feels welcoming, open, and friendly. It is especially designed for business beginners and aspiring entrepreneurs.

The Black Mom’s Club is a network for "Black Moms, African American Parents, Mothers of Color, Single Moms, Dads." This site, too, is visually appealing and engaging. I was thrilled to read a featured blog post by Henry of her interview with Terry Crews. Terry "Muscle Man" Crews, devoted Hollywood father of five and the funniest man on television (in my opinion), is the star of the new sitcom, Are We There Yet?

The Black Mom’s Network also showcases other Black parenting bloggers and Black family websites. There are over 3500 members, mostly moms with a few expressive dads. The forum has 8oo topics on record, but very little discussion is taking place. On the other hand, a featured member blog post titled, "Are Black Women Teaching Their Daughters to be Mean?" got 56 comments. The few exchanges that are happening in the forums are positive and supportive. The video section of the site holds some hidden gems. Henry collaborated with Lamar and Ronnie Tyler of BlackandMarriedWithKids.com, on a three-day web conference discussing issues related to black parenting and child-rearing. The conference featured a panel of speakers with interesting parenting perspectives. Recordings of those conference discussions are available under the video tab. In all, this network is full of information about parenting and family life. Henry says she is interested in "edu-taining" her visitors and members, and she does.

What Black Women Think is, according to the site, "a place for all Black Women: African American, Caribbean, European, African descent to connect, reflect, and dissect our issues in our way." The mission of this network is for women of color to "take all our pieces and make them into one powerful force." It sounds promisingly like a political or activism network. Instead, this site is more like a gathering place for general discussions about life and its challenges. The forum topics, for example, are typically about relationships, hair care and self-nurturance. There are 370 members and 70 forum discussions running. The site currently has seven special interest groups, the largest being Urban Book Lovers with 10 members. Henry does a good job of creating a comfortable space and environment for black women to visit here.

Social Media Sistas is the newest of LaShanda’s networks. Its purpose is to bring together women of color who blog. The site invites bloggers to join and submit their work. It says:

The idea is to give fellow sista-bloggers the opportunity to repost their work and/or introduce original material that they feel is relevant to the black community online / women of color online.

The site is lovely and includes a directory of women bloggers organized by topic. So far it has attracted 116 members. But the posts do not seem to be rolling in. The last post was dated December 7th. The site is a great opportunity for bloggers of color to connect and support each other. Hopefully, the idea will catch on fire among its members and become something powerful. Thanks to Henry, all of the tools are there.

Henry has devoted her time and career to providing welcoming and supportive platforms for women of color to express themselves and connect with each other. She is clearly committed to promoting and encouraging black enterprise with every site. Though there is quite a bit of overlap between the networks and the ads are a little overwhelming, the BlackWomenNetwork conglomerate does a good job of creating a supportive community for women of color, particularly black women. As with all social network sites, the experience is only what the members make it individually and collectively. I don’t know how Henry manages it all, but giving women of color voice and opportunity is clearly her passion.

In the social network realm, another star is rising, Cameka Smith with the BOSS Network. This is the business black girl’s nirvana -- maybe because this community is so new and the women involved are so passionate and engaged; maybe because positivity draws kindred spirits like nectar does bees; and maybe because there is so little ad noise on this site to detract from the message. I am sure this site feels so good for all of these reasons combined. Smith is an educator-turned-event planner-turned-social network founder. She had the idea to start this network when she found herself where I am right now -- looking online and off for a meaningful way to connect with other ambitious women. Her vision was to create "a women empowerment alliance dedicated to highlighting women and creating opportunities for growth through networking beyond events."

BOSS is an acronym for "bringing out successful sisters," the site says, "to build relationships and networks to structure a foundation where women feel supported in their holistic lives." The mission of the site is fundamentally business-focused, but Smith endeavors to not just encourage and support the professional lives of BOSS members, but to change the way women are viewed and valued in the market place. She plans to accomplish all of that with a mixture of personal connection, positive role-modeling, high standards of professionalism, and a commitment to learning and support. When you join this site, you get a welcome from her and a whole slew of other enthusiastic members. These are BOSS ambassadors charged with making sure you connect with the membership and feel at home on the site.

The network launched in December of 2009 and already has 712 members and 34 special interest groups. The groups are populated with impressive numbers of participants and span the full spectrum of topics — including Women in Entertainment, Women Educators, BOSS + Mom, PR Queens, Savor the Thyme (cooking enthusiasts), Married and Happy, and La Soul Poetic (a poetry group) -- to name a few. There are even regional groups, such as DC Divas, LA Ladies and Chicago Ladies. Similarly, the blogging is active and diverse in coverage, with fairly responsive comments from members. The forum has new discussions rolling in and great participation. The videos featured on the site are an interesting combination of motivational clips (like one of Johnetta Cole speaking about the importance of mentoring among women of color) and videos showcasing members at work (like Tiffany Ford of Ford Publicity’s bathing suit calendar shoot and Angel Worth’s performance of an original score in honor of Haitian earthquake victims.) In all, the site and the activity on the site are professional, positive, and uplifting.

I think Smith is onto something special and I am not alone. Forbes.com ranked the BOSS Network among their 10 Best Career Sites for Women and Top 100 Websites for Women. Smith says when she first launched the site, she spent days looking at the computer screen waiting for new members to come and the few members who joined to do something. It was slow-going. But once the word got out and her promotion efforts caught momentum, members have been streaming in and bringing their friends and colleagues with them. It bears mentioning that the BOSS Network is not exclusive to women of color. Though the current membership is primarily African American women, everyone is welcome.

Beautiful social network sites abound. One quick sweep of Ning, Spruz, SocialGo, Grou.ps, WackWall, and the other social network host sites uncovers a whole array of finely-tuned special interest groups and support communities. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to look for a group of women like me. Perhaps my whole small business foray has provided the extra incentive. In any case, it’s lovely when you find wonderful options and just what you are looking for. As one member of the BOSS network said in her latest status, "I'm amazed at how people come into your life at the perfect time." Amen.

Some other places to find women of color online:

Brown Girl Collective

Professional Women of Color Network

Black Women Connect

SistahNet

Women of Color 40 Plus

Contributing Editor Gina Carroll also blogs at Think Act: Proactive Black Parenting and Tortured By Teenagers

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