Social experiment: TheSheLab cultivates connection

Photo: Heather Dodge Photography Photo: Heather Dodge Photography

Valeria McFarren and Lily West met five years ago when both moved to Charlottesville, bonding as they learned their way around town and raised young children as professional women with busy husbands. Even as they prospered, McFarren, founder and principal of communications firm Chaski Global, and West, chief operating officer of the UVA Alumni Association, realized they wanted something more. “We talked about building a community of women,” says West, “to explore how to navigate the personal and professional spheres in our lives and to honestly assess where we were in both.”

When McFarren hosted a dinner for a group of professional women in town for a Presidential Precinct event two years ago, she and West found themselves surrounded by a similar sentiment.

“These women had different backgrounds— some worked in business, some as policy advocates, some for nonprofits—but we all really yearned for deeper relationships with other women who were going through the same things,” says West. “We stayed late talking about how to balance family, how to build careers, how do our partners play into this, how does money factor in, and no one wanted to leave.”

The experience spurred the pair to action, and they convened a board of 13 founding members to launch a women’s growth network called TheSheLab in the fall of 2018. The name is inspired by the idea of a laboratory where ideas are formulating and the work is ongoing, and the group aims to serve women who are changing their communities in ways big and small.

“We’re starting here in Charlottesville, but we want to create an organization that has chapters in multiple cities and can replicate the types of relationships we’re trying to build,” West says.

Membership is free, and members receive a monthly newsletter keeping them informed about upcoming speakers and events and links to useful articles. TheSheLab hosts lunch and breakfast speakers at Common House, featuring women in diverse fields sharing their experiences and describing how they operate in their various spheres of influence. An October event panel included Christina Diiorio (of YayLunch!), Sarah Abubaker (of ReRunner), and Linnea White (of Darling Boutique and Boss Babes Cville) speaking about pursuing both personal and professional goals.

TheSheLab’s vision statement stresses “female empowerment and equality above all else,” and their approach forms a series of concentric circles. Women enrich themselves as individuals, then extend their impact to a group network, and finally head out to influence the world. “It’s about making connections to achieve balance,” says West.

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