The room bustled with the busy voices of 14 women who never rest. They're business owners with their office and home under one roof. Even while relaxing over a brown-bag lunch, they work hard at giving each other mutual support to make it in the lonely, dog-eat-dog world of working out of your own home.
Breaking free from the isolation of home-based work, they go to the monthly luncheon of the Women Home-Based Business Owners Support Group. As I discovered during a recent "Lunch with Cliff," the women's midday meal at the lodge in Montgomery's Swaim Park let them boost each other's spirits by sharing frustrations as well as success stories.
"We feel understood here," Chris Bockstiegel told me. The Aurora-based marketing trainer added: "We're all on the same playing field. We want to succeed in business. But we all worry about not making our beds in the morning and keeping our houses clean."
The meetings of the 2-year-old group are not your standard networking sessions. Business cards are exchanged and speakers give pep talks. Absent is the group-hustle to drum up more business.
"There's no gamesmanship here," said Elaine Milstein, the group's co-founder and owner of a public relations firm she runs from her Montgomery home.
"There's no cliquishness," she said. "Everyone talks to everyone else."
Ellen Steele, a nurse, wellness counselor and home-based business owner from Westwood, spoke at this week's meeting. She talked about relationships and the need to stay healthy.
The speaker got the group moving by turning on a boombox and playing what amounted to a Jazzercise version of the "Hokey Pokey."
The women loved it. They enjoyed the goofy moves and the chance to act silly in public with a roomful of their peers.
When the tape stopped, laughter started. Anita Guy, a desk-top publisher from Wyoming, giggled at how ridiculous everyone looked. Deborah Reynolds, a party designer from Finneytown, declared she needed a nap.
Before she pretended to nod off, Deborah asked the group: "Does anyone have trouble getting respect? Friends and relatives assume if you work at home, you're not working. Clients ask where I work. When I tell them, 'Out of my home,' they hang up."
The laughter evaporated.
Chris Bockstiegel fretted about the loneliness of their jobs. "Working alone at home, we don't come into contact with other people. We might not smile all day. Sometimes I listen to music that made me feel good in high school to help get me through the day."
Anita noticed that most of her friends "can't relate to what I do. When I have a success in my job, I call my mom or page my husband. And I wait for the next meeting of this group to share my news with people who can appreciate what I've been through.
"By the way," she said, "you should see the dirt in my house." Laughter returned to the room.
Looking up and down the tables, Chris noted, "We are pioneers in the industry of home-based businesses. There are no rules. We're still learning what to do."
Ruth van Gelder-Bochner nodded at Chris' comments. A home-based business-owner since 1972 - "I started out publishing playbills for the old Shubert Theater" - Ruth is the group's senior member. "Acceptance and respect have come a long way since 1972," she said. "But it's still important to have these meetings. Women must realize we need balance in our lives.
"We can't have it all," she added. "But we can learn how to balance our work with our families and our lives so nothing suffers."
Ruth's words jolted Karen Wessel, a marketing consultant from Forest Park.
"When you hear something like that," Karen said, "it reminds us we may be home-based and working by ourselves. But we are not alone."
Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.