Bay Area women in business are celebrating good times and good connections with the sixth anniversary of the Girls' Night Out Network, a Tri-Valley-born members organization founded by Frances Hewitt in 2008.

Affectionately known as GNON (pronounced "gee-non"), the club finds its origins in the lighthearted humor and well-grounded philosophies of Hewitt, owner of Pleasanton-based FHI Marketing Consultants. Comprised of women primarily from the East Bay, GNON grew from 12 members to more than 1,000 on its current email distribution list. With an annual membership fee of $95 and monthly mixers held at members' businesses ($10 for members, $15 for nonmembers), GNON activities are designed to forge deep, enduring connections.

Frances Hewitt, founder of the Girls Night Out Networking group, socializes during a GNON get-together event held at Baron’s Jewelry in Dublin,
Frances Hewitt, founder of the Girls Night Out Networking group, socializes during a GNON get-together event held at Baron's Jewelry in Dublin, Calif., on Tuesday, June 3, 2014. The GNON women's networking group started about 6 years ago and now boasts more than 1,000 members. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

"I was involved with different networking groups that meet once a week. I'm not knocking them, but that's what prompted me to want a group that didn't meet in the morning, was women-only and wasn't so structured," Hewitt said. "You can have a glass of wine, light appetizers and relax."

Meetings have no set agendas or speakers. After tightly scheduled, 10-hour days in an office, Hewitt said surveys she conducted told her that women appreciate the charged -- but not challenging -- atmosphere.

But make no mistake, behind the libations and lively chatter, there's real revenue. Hewitt mentions Dr. Traci Saba, Zen Pilates and Fitness owner. Hewitt says Saba goes to every event and has told Hewitt that 90 percent of her clients came from GNON.


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Deanna Ortuno has been a member from the group's beginning. The Pleasanton resident and owner of Hairlights Salon said she also belongs to five other business networking groups. "What makes it unique is it's only women. It changes the dynamic. When you add men to the mix, it's still kind of old-school," she said.

As a hairdresser with 60 percent of her business coming from women, she said 80 percent of those customers come from GNON. "They get to know you and trust you. Women know I'll help them network. It's a win-win: they get their hair done and their business backed up by me."

She's true to her word, too: she offered her salon on a busy Saturday as a showcase to an artist, new to the group. The greater visibility brought clients to the artist and benefited Ortuno, who now lists the woman as a steady customer.

The I'll-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine environment, Hewitt says, is instinctive for females.

"Women do networking best; it's in our nature," she said. "We're passionate and have a sense of excitement. We want to empower each other. We love to support each other."

Sunol resident Veronica Horton owns A Touch of Health Day Spa and said she's been attending "since GNON's birth." She called Hewitt "inspiring" and "a comedian." She cherishes the opportunity to "go there and just have a great laugh."

Learning about new products and catching up on relationships that often suffer from small business owners' busy lifestyles, she said the benefits are exponential.

"At the last event, I brought in a new member (who) signed up that night. She knew a couple of ladies that she introduced me to, and they signed up for facials."

The three business owners are also members of the Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce and serve as chamber ambassadors. Hewitt sees the chamber as a partner, and GNON deliberately does not hold events on the second Wednesday of the month to avoid overlapping schedules.

Ortuno said she believes both groups have value and that her chamber participation creates visibility and is a marketing tool. "GNON is different," she said. "Slamming business down someone's throat is a mixer. Building a relationship takes a while. You go, have a good time, meet a great group of women. Frances has kept that philosophy going all along."

Horton said that, as with any group, "you get out of it what you put in. It gives me lots of pleasure to be able to support my fellow ladies in business."

Last year's decision by the board to merge GNON's four chapters into one has made the meetings more cohesive. Separate seminars on things like nutrition, social media, financial investment, even training for marathons, are included in the membership. An experiment -- inviting male guests to a joint mixer -- resulted in survey responses indicating 95 percent of the attendees preferred getting away and hanging out with only women.

"I encourage women, especially if they're not Type A, to come check us out before they join," Hewitt said. "We take them under our wing; they get business. I can preach about it, but I say, 'Come check it out.' "

For more on GNON, visit http://www.gnon.org or contact Hewitt at 925-487-4748 or at gnoners@gmail.com.