By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

On Tuesday, the Forté Foundation brought together movers and shakers from New York’s top companies as part of its 2010 Network of Women’s Networks conference. The theme of the conference was Driving Change through Innovation – and as keynote speaker Kerrie Peraino, Chief Diversity Officer of American Express explained, “Far from being the buzz words of this millennium, change and innovation, they are actually a call to action.”

Attendees were asked to focus not only on how change and innovation come to fruition within an organization, but how they themselves are change agents. And of course, because of the emphasis on networks, women were encouraged to build relationships and make new connections with other conference attendees.

Networking for Innovation

Kicking off the day with a speed-networking session, Amy Orlav, Professional Development Specialist at the Graduate Management Admission Council ®, joked, “What is the best part of any conference? Don’t say the food.” She answered, “it’s the networking!”

In frequently shifting small groups, attendees were asked to introduce themselves and discuss different aspects of innovation.

Answers to the question, “what is your favorite innovation of the past decade?” ranged from smartphones to self-adhesive stamps. When asked whose picture would be next to the word “innovator” in the dictionary, answers ranged from inventors like Benjamin Franklin, to enterprising women like Oprah Winfrey, Meg Whitman of Ebay, or Kiva co-founder Jessica Flannery, to mavens of personal reinvention like Madonna or Lady Gaga.

Further questions went deeper, encouraging attendees to ponder the true meaning of innovation, as well as consider their own contributions. Questions included, “what are the three most important attributes of innovators?”, “would you consider yourself an innovator?” and “are you more comfortable taking risks in your personal or professional life?”.

So often at conferences, networking means exchanging quick conversations and few business cards. In contrast, the speed-networking session provided a great way to connect on a deeper level with fellow attendees. The session also provided a valuable starting point for the day’s discussion.

From Networking to Network Building

The conference also included several panel discussions on innovation and corporate women’s networks. The final panel, “Utilizing Women’s Networks as a Business Strategy,” featured four successful women and their views on the value of formal and informal networks, as well as replicable tips for creating networks in other companies.

Moderated by Diane Brady, Senior Editor and Content Chief at BusinessWeek, panelists included Anne Erni, Head of Leadership, Learning, and Diversity at Bloomberg L.P., Donna Goldsmith, Chief Operating Officer of World Wrestling Entertainment, Robin Matza, Tax Director, Lead Tax Services and Women’s Initiative Leader at Deloitte, and Amy Radin, Senior Vice President & Global Chief Marketing Officer of the Reader’s Digest Association.

First of all, the way the network is created has to fit in with the company’s culture. For example, as Erni explained, when she worked at Lehman Brothers, the impetus to build the women’s network there came as a top-down directive from the company’s president. In contrast, at Bloomberg, the structure of the organization is much more flat – a top-down directive just won’t work, so she is undertaking a more populist approach to building its women’s network.

At Deloitte, Matza explained, building a women’s network has always been considered good business. “Since the beginning, it’s been called a business strategy,” she said, as a method for retaining top female staff members – who were leaving the organization at a much faster rate than men. Company leaders felt that “if you could close the gender gap of attrition you would save a lot of money,” she explained. And it’s worked. “Today we have just about closed the gender gap for attrition.”

Another reason for its success, she said: “the women’s initiative [at Deloitte] reports to the CEO, not HR.”

Both Goldsmith and Radin spoke about informal networks.

Goldsmith explained that women have always had a place at the table at the WWE. “For the WWE it has never been an issue… more than half of the executive staff are women,” she said. While there is no formal women’s network at the WWE, employees are encouraged to share ideas and make connections across the board. “We have an open door policy,” she said. “I’ll talk to anyone who walks into my office.”

Regarding Reader’s Digest, Radin said, “We don’t have a formal structure called a women’s network, but we do a lot of things to foster inclusion.” Radin discussed ideas such as a 48 hour email reply window for executive staff to employees, an anonymous mail box anyone can drop suggestions into, and the Daily Innovator, an internal, uncensored blog staff members can contribute to, the purpose of which is “just getting people talking.”

And, besides fostering an inclusive community, all of these initiatives come at no cost. Radin exclaimed, “within a couple of weeks I had my blog up and running on free software!”

Forté’s event proved the power of networking for fostering innovation. Not only did conference attendees connect with individuals, but participants also brainstormed and shared real ideas for building and improving women’s networks. Even the experts came away from the event with useful, new information. Erni remarked, “I’ve actually taken some ideas today on how to put it all together.”