Three Approaches to Starting a Peer Circle

Three Approaches to Starting a Peer Circle

For women in business, it’s critical to build relationships with peers who can offer support and advice. Peer circles—regular gatherings where women come together to talk about a specific topic—can be a powerful source of shared learning and camaraderie across industries and interests. But how do you start one? And how should it be structured?

At Booth Women Connect Conference 2018, five Booth alumnae shared how they started peer circles, some of which have been going strong for more than a decade. They offered three very different models of what a successful peer circle can look like—from groups large to small, meeting frequently or just once a year.

All of the panelists gave their best advice on how to successfully organize and sustain a group. Here’s what they had to say:

The Monthly Meet-Up

For the past decade, Jessica Strausbaugh, ’08, and Lotika Pai, ’08, have been part of a 10-person peer circle that formed as they were graduating from Booth.

Initiative and structure have been key to their group’s longevity, they said. In January, every member claims a month to host in the coming year (skipping the hectic holiday months of November and December). Each month, the designated host schedules a meet-up that at least three to four members can attend, and then proposes a topic of conversation of interest to the group.

Gatherings have ranged from formal to relaxed—most are dinner chats, but they’ve also included visits from professors, guest speakers on entrepreneurship, trips to cultural events, and family picnics.

It just takes two motivated people to start, Strausbaugh said. She advises beginning with a larger group, knowing it will likely become smaller but more dedicated over time. “A group of friends is permeable. But once you call yourself a peer circle, that group can sustain itself because you’ve defined your parameters,” she said.

Ten years later, what initially began as a gathering of classmates and acquaintances has turned into a bedrock of encouragement: “These ten amazingly brilliant women have supported me through my entire career,” Pai said.

The Peer Coaching Group

The four-person peer group of Alexis Lavko, ’09, and Anjali Nakhooda, ’07, began as part of a Booth pilot program on peer coaching. One year later, it has transformed into a close-knit friendship that serves as a sounding board about anything they may be facing at work or in their personal lives.

An outside coach and facilitator came to the first two sessions, which helped the four participants set structure and define their ground rules, they said. They even did pre-work, reading a series of articles on how to effectively coach one another.

“It really is about how you ask the kinds of questions that aren’t guiding someone somewhere, but are helping someone on this journey of self-discovery,” Nakhooda said. “The solution is much more powerful when it comes from you solving your own problems in your own context.”

Being able to be open and honest with a group that can give trusted advice has been incredibly helpful, Lavko said. “The major issues that we were discussing were mostly career-related. It was extremely helpful to have someone outside of your brand culture, who wasn't invested in the intercompany politics. Because they can ask things that I never thought about.”

The Yearly Gathering

Fellow panelist Aarti Vakharia, ’06, shared a very different structure that’s worked well for her peer circle of 20 people: a yearly meeting that rotates cities and gathers people from all over the country.

Now in its twelfth year, their daylong meeting lasts about eight hours and has a formal agenda. Members who live nearby take the lead on planning, and they usually schedule time for a site visit or a guest speaker—past meetings have featured a life coach or a financial advisor, and this year’s meeting included a tour of a startup accelerator.

But the highlight of the day is when each person shares her life updates. “That’s actually our favorite part because that’s where each of us gets to speak for about 20 or 30 minutes about our lives,” Vakharia said. “You can speak about your career, your personal life, or it can be about your pet—whatever’s going on in your life that you want to discuss.”

The result has been a powerful support group, enabling the formation of relationships that have become deeper and more personal over time. “At the tenth anniversary meeting of our group one of our classmates talked to us about ambition,” Vakharia said. “We were reflecting on where we were ten years after graduation: Were we at the place where we wanted to be? Were we happy with it? How do you even find the path you want to be on?”

Booth Women Connect Conference is organized by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The 2018 event brought together more than 1,100 professionals for an extraordinary day of bold ideas, spirited discussion, practical insights, and impactful networking. Join us for the next annual conference on November 1, 2019.

—By LeeAnn Shelton

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