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Meet the founder of Marin, Sonoma networks for professional women

Women entrepreneurs

This story is part of an ongoing series. Meet other notable North Bay professionals.

Six years ago, when Karen Kilian founded Marin Women at Work, she understood that in order to build a collaborative networking group, she would have to overcome one big hurdle.

“I’m a very, very private person,” said Kilian. But her tagline for Marin Women at Work transcends her introverted tendencies: The girlfriends' approach to building businesses.

“My ultimate mission is to connect all of us so that as we continue to grow in our businesses, we continue to share our personal stories,” Kilian said. “We can learn from each other and, for someone like me who is a private person, just get more comfortable sharing our stories. If my story helps somebody else out, that's great.”

Kilian’s members come from all walks of professional life: physicians, retailers, accountants, attorneys, and real estate and insurance professionals, among others. There’s even a funeral home director and a dating coach.

One of Kilian’s main goals was to include direct referrals for her members, something that was inspired by a personal experience.

“I went through a brutal divorce and a brutal custody battle,” said Kilian, who has a son, now 25 years old. “I initially hired the wrong lawyer, and he cost me a lot of time, a lot of heartache and a lot of money. If I can save one woman by sharing my story or introducing her to the right lawyer, that’s valuable.”

Kilian, 57, has grown Marin Women at Work’s membership to 64 members, plus another 20 as part of Sonoma Women at Work, which she formed last year.

Members pay an annual fee of $150 to be listed on MWAW’s or SWAW’s website. The groups collaborate with each other and get together for monthly luncheons, happy hours, recreational activities, and educational and networking events. The events and excursions cost $20 each, with most still on hold because of the pandemic. Kilian also blogs and produces podcasts.

Starting out young

The youngest of four children, Kilian was raised in a middle-class household in San Rafael. Her parents were not entrepreneurs, but she said they supported her dreams, which began in high school when she expressed a desire to turn her love of fashion into a business.

At the age of 24, Kilian got a loan and opened a women’s clothing store, which she kept for about six years.

“I was working six or seven days a week and it just wasn't making enough for me to continue,” she said. “Back then I was too naive to know any better of how difficult having your own business can be. I loved it, but I was naive. Now I'm on a mission, and that's what's keeping me strong, and keeping me pursuing what I'm doing.”

Brittany Keyes, a member of MWAW, also has been friends with Kilian for six years.

“Karen is really passionate. When she sees the need for connecting like-minded women, she gets brave because she really gets out of her comfort zone,” said Keyes, an insurance agent for State Farm in San Rafael. “She is honest about her own insecurities and is brave to be vulnerable, at the cost of making sure other people are getting connected.”

Resilient and positive

Like so many businesses, the pandemic has taken a toll on her company’s revenue.

“It killed it because we are event-based,” Kilian said, declining to state her financial losses. “I didn't give up just because we're going through hard times. What message would that be showing my members? And luckily, maybe because I have been doing this for nearly six years now, I think I've developed enough relationships that the other members continue their support.”

Waverly Newton, owner of Nothing Bundt Cakes, with shops in Corte Madera and Santa Rosa, met Kilian through a mutual friend before joining Marin Women at Work last year.

“Karen has the most positive attitude and outlook on everything. Really, I’ve never heard her say a negative word about anything or anyone,” Newton said, describing Kilian as resilient even through the difficulties of the pandemic. “She was there every step of the way, never disengaged from her members and was always trying to find a way to make those genuine connections.”

Kilian at the end of the month plans to launch a new website called 50isjustanumber.com, which will provide information and resources for women over 50 about a variety of topics. There will be no membership fee.

“The whole goal is that it's never too late,” Kilian said. “It’s never too late to buy your dream home, never too late to start that dream career and never too late to get financially savvy. And I think we forget that as we get older.”

Kilian says that she sees life through a positive lens, both professionally and personally.

“I was a single mom at a young age and I had the resources to support myself, but if I didn't, I also had a family to support me if I needed it,” Kilian said. “And I realize a lot of women don't have that. I do appreciate just how lucky I've been.”

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

Women entrepreneurs

This story is part of an ongoing series. Meet other notable North Bay professionals.

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