Catching Up with WXW Co-Founder Carrie Hensel

On the 10th anniversary of Women’s Exchange Washtenaw, we thought it’d be fun to interview Carrie Hensel, Queen Bee at Color Hive Creative and one of the original co-founders of WXW, to find out her initial inspiration for starting this organization, what she has gained from WXW over the years, and what her hopes are for WXW moving into its second decade.

What was your inspiration for starting WXW?
Debra Power and I were eating lunch together one day, talking about business, and asking each other questions like, “What do you do when this particularly tricky situation arises?” We both said in unison, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if we could rely on a larger group of business women to ask and answer questions about business, careers, and life? Just imagine what we might learn.”

Right there on the spot, we decided to form a steering committee of professionals who might see value in a new type of networking and educational organization for women. At our first meeting, the women on the steering committee decided that we should host an event, which we called a forum, where we could “talk it out” on a wide range of topics like communication, hiring and retention, marketing, sales, leadership, finding strength in difficult times, and life balance.

At that first forum, we had over 150 people registered to attend, and we were ecstatic! But when we opened the doors, we had a big problem. So many people showed up who hadn’t registered that the event venue had to scrounge up 50 more chairs! Attendees loved the format of the event, with a panel, breakout sessions, and other types of sessions that inspired conversations. After that first event where WXW was born, we hosted subsequent monthly sessions.  And now WXW is a decade old – we all should be so proud!

What do you think makes WXW unique from other organizations?
When we formed WXW, we agreed that we didn’t want to host events where a presenter showed a PowerPoint presentation, regurgitated something they’d said many times before, and invited/inspired minimal interaction from the attendees. Sure, we knew that presenters have great areas of expertise, but there’s also the collective wisdom of all of the people in the room. We wanted to let that wisdom out!

People have told me over the years that because of the interactions they’ve had at WXW, they’ve been able to “go deep” on important topics, and learn new things about business, career, and themselves.

What have you personally gained from your involvement in the group?
Of course, I’ve personally received so many good ideas, been offered new solutions to problems, and formed connections that helped me over the years. But way more importantly, I met several of my besties because of WXW. These are people who are always “in my boat” through life’s inevitable ups and downs, and I’m so fortunate for those relationships.

As women, how do you think we can we best help each other succeed?
With empathy, good questions, open ears, and open minds. When we know that we have a team of other women who are in our corner, it gives us support, confidence, and a way to find deeper meaning in shared experience.

Looking back, what’s your favorite WXW event or memory?
In 2010, the Small Business Administration of Michigan (SBAM) presented us with the statewide award for Champions of Women in Business. We got our photos taken with the governor! Holy moly that was fun!

Another time we had a happy hour networking event in a heatwave in July at the Ann Arbor Art Center, and the air conditioner broke before all 100 of us feisty women arrived in our business attire. It didn’t take long for our coiffed hair to go flat and sweat to mix with our eye concealer. Still, the heat and humidity didn’t stop us from staying there for a few hours, sipping wine, gabbing up a storm, and making new friends even if all of us looked like we were having nonstop hot flashes.

Looking forward, what would you like to see WXW achieve in the next 10 years?
Despite our busy lives and filled calendars, professional women still crave social connections. It’s not always easy to navigate the work world, communicate with teams, or interview for a new job, and concurrently sustain our relationships with family and friends. On that note, I just read a good article in the Harvard Business Review about the growing epidemic of loneliness. We are social creatures, and loneliness/isolation is horrible for our health. We have so much technology intended to help us connect, but rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s, and at least 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely. What if WXW could help with that?

I like to think/hope that in the next 10 years, WXW could continue to help women (and a few brave men) to meet each other, talk about topics that matter, and form stronger connections. Because those connections help us all to be better people, to understand and appreciate each other – at work, at home, and in the places, we live.