In a previous life, Carrie Hensel was a chemist. When she left her cushy corporate job to start web-design company Inner Circle Media, it came as a surprise to some. Hensel puts it this way: "My parents thought I was insane."
"I grew up in Midland, Michigan (headquarters of Dow Chemical), where everyone is a chemist," she says. "[My parents] could not believe I would leave a high-paying salary and almost-for-certain leaps and bounds of a career path. But it just didn't fulfill me."
A self-described "creative person" (with a BFA from the University of Michigan — following a chemistry degree from Albion College — to prove it), Hensel now spends decidedly less time in laboratory settings. Approaching its eighth anniversary, her company Inner Circle Media was inspired by Hensel's nature to, as she puts it, "talk to a whole lot of people and do different things."
Based in downtown Ann Arbor, the company does web design development, web-based design development and branding for mostly locally and regionally based clients, but also some in the Northeast. The women-owned firm has grown steadily mostly by word of mouth since it was launched. For Hensel, the success is nice, but more important is how its achieved: "We certainly have fun even when we're getting a lot of work done," Hensel says. "People have to work and why not have a good time doing it?"
And, since last year, Hensel has tried to spread enjoyment in the workplace to the businesswomen of Washtenaw County. She and Debra Power of Power Marketing dreamed up Women's Exchange of Washtenaw (WXW) during a lunch conversation in early 2008.
"We decided we wanted to form a group and wanted it to be for women who are leading or part of growing companies," Hensel explains. Though there happens to be a lot of support for start-ups, there isn't as much for established companies that are 5, 10 or 15 years old and face different challenges.
"We want talk about different things those companies struggle with," she says. "We said, 'Okay, we want to form this group for women who are part of growing companies and we want to be very interactive', so much so that it doesn't look like other events."
For one, it provides professional women with the opportunity to mentor one another in a way that is more horizontal than vertical.
Hensel describes WXW events as "big breakout sessions," different than the typical business workshop where an expert is brought in to talks at the participants. There isn't a formal presentation at the monthly WXW events, Hensel says. Instead, the get togethers usually start with a topic and participants break up into groups to hash over issues and questions they may have about it.
"When Debra and I formed the group it was with the intention that smart women got together and really helped each other," Hensel explains. "The events are really open and people really get the chance to talk — which women are very good at anyway."
Over 200 women attended the first WXW event last May, suggesting there has been a real hunger for this kind of organization. The energy and enthusiasm at the event was so great that during the scheduled happy hour at the end of the day, Hensel recounts, "people went and got their wine and went back to talk." For a massive event planned for this coming May, featuring a full day of panels, WXW is shooting for over 300 attendees. Listening to her talk about WXW, it's clear how passionate Hensel is about the group, and how her sense of fun informs her work.
"Our tag line is ‘Now we're talking' and that's what we do. That is really where the magic happens," Hensel says. "It sounds cheesy, but that's the place I want to be — when you're talking to people and figuring stuff out."
Among the different topics discussed you'll find conversations about managing growth, leadership, and visioning. Over a two-night event at the United Way, WXW participants talked about how to get more involved in leadership positions on local non-profit boards.
One of the breakout sessions was about life-balance, Hensel points out, a crucial subject for women with jobs and families to take care of. During the session -which involved business people, representatives from non-profits, people who had been on boards before and those who had never been but were interested- one woman even brought her baby.
Said Hensel: "The baby was a good prop."
In the future, to continue to grow WXW's vision of being "a little bit funky and more fun than other events," Hensel said she and Power envision more women from the area becoming involved, and attracting others to events from the Toledo and Grand Rapids areas. What first started out as an idea for a women's group has turned into a mission-driven non-profit, with what Hensel describes as an "awesome" steering committee and a growing volunteer base.
"The vision is bigger than it was when we first started," Hensel says. "We've even talked about having a TV show … We would love to interview business women across the state and talk to them."
Kimberly Chou is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor. She is a frequent contributor to both Metromode and Concentrate. Her previous article was DIY Hollywood.
Carrie Gets Her Point Across-Ann Arbor
Carrie as an Action Figure-Ann Arbor
Carrie Runs Inner Circle Media-Ann Arbor
Carrie and Inner Circle's Mascot-Ann Arbor
Carrie's Rockstar Portrait-Ann Arbor
Carrie's Office Spuds-Ann ArborAll Photos by Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. He digs the boxing girl poster.
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