Catherine Bickford had a problem.

Proprietor of a successful South Portland art studio, Bickford had developed an art kit called Art Night Out, meant to be shared with family or friends at gatherings.

But how could she get national attention and launch the art kit to a larger audience?

So she turned to a roomful of fellow women entrepreneurs for help.

The group, Women Standing Together, is a quarterly lunch program run by the Maine Women’s Fund, that brings together about 50 women entrepreneurs and a speaker who outlines a business problem.

It was a unique opportunity to tap into the diverse and deep talent pool of fellow business owners.

“I think it’s fantastic to have so much attention focused on your product by people with so much experience,” said Bickford, who owns Artascope in South Portland.

Bickford brought samples and pitched her plan to the group at the latest luncheon, held Thursday in Portland. Breakout group discussions went on for about half an hour discussing everything from pricing to to the target audience.

Women Standing Together was established in 2003 as a fundraising arm of the Maine Women’s Fund, but it has evolved into a focus group that uses women entrepreneurs to help other women with business questions. In addition to the luncheon feedback sessions, the speaker is paired with a mentor who works with her in the two or three months before and after the presentation.

“The women who came had a lot to give beyond a check,” said Barbara Babkirk, who transitioned Women Standing Together to its new form.

She said that women leave the luncheons feeling as if they’ve not only contributed financially as members of WST, but also with their expertise and ideas.

Sandra Lipsey, an executive coach who attended her second luncheon on Thursday, said the event is creative and invigorating.

“I got energized by it and got some ideas for my own business,” she said.

Bickford said one of the best new ideas to emerge was targeting the art kit to groups that already meet regularly and are looking for an activity.

Speakers are suggested through the Women’s Business Center at Coastal Enterprises Inc. or Maine Centers for Women, Work and Community and are vetted through a questionnaire by Women Standing Together.

“We’re looking for women who want to grow their businesses,” said Elizabeth Stefanski, executive director of the Maine Women’s Fund.

The next lunch will be Nov. 18.

One past participant said feedback she got at the March luncheon has paid off. Christy Hemenway told the women that she was getting overwhelmed by the demands of her business, Gold Star Honeybees, particularly driving long distances to maintain 10 beehives.

“They helped me think outside the box about how to staff,” she said. “We talked about an internship or an apprenticeship.”

Today, Henenway has two apprentices who manage geographic areas of the business.

“I love the idea and the concept,” Henenway said of the group’s lunches, even when it means your company — and a problem — is under the microscope.

“Even if you get negative feedback, you at least know how not to do something,” she said.

Staff Writer Stephanie Hardiman can be contacted at 791-6301 or at:

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