When members of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) assembled for their annual luncheon meeting last week, they swapped business cards, financing tips and strategies for success.

Their mission: to somehow simulate a female version of the established networks in the business world that help give men an advantage.

"When I started my own company eight years ago, thank God I found NAWBO," said Marcia Wieder, outgoing president of the group's local chapter. "They became my advisers, my friends ..." Wieder said many group members have no formal education in business and turn to the group for basic nuts and bolts knowledge.

"I didn't know anything about aging receivables when I started out," said Wieder, president of a media and marketing firm that bears her name.

Women aren't the only ones who can benefit from the support and contacts a network provides. Few people have the practical knowledge needed to run a business before they've run one. Yet as entrepreneurs, many women prefer to turn to other women for advice and support.

"Women have to prove twice as much as men, particularly in terms of credit," said Kavelle Bajaj, a NAWBO member who six years ago founded a computer consulting firm called I-Net. "People still tend to believe you are not as serious about your business, that you're just doing it as a hobby."

Ilene Morris, who takes over as president of NAWBO in the fall, turned to the group when her five-woman financial advisory firm was still young. She took part in the mentor program that matches successful business owners with owners just starting out. The contacts and advice she received were especially helpful in the beginning. And the fact that she was guided by a woman helped too, she said, since they both faced similar problems.

"When you're starting out, you don't want to go to a man who's going to act like he's your father," she said.

"All the nit-picky things that go into starting a business are a terrific challenge," said Fran Jones, vice president of the Network of Entrepreneurial Women. Jones came to this group when she was starting her interior decorating business. By attending regular meetings, she said, she spotted hurdles she might not have seen and found a support structure that could prop her up in a crisis.

"The most difficult time for anyone is when you are incorporated and you have to submit your company's income tax. I went to a luncheon and {a member who was an accountant} was giving a talk on income tax for the small-business owner," she said. "I not only realized that I had a lot to learn, but that the speaker was a good accountant that I could work with."

As a result, she hired the speaker to do accounting work for her business and her family. Jones became the accountant's interior decorator.

Like most entrepreneurs starting out, women find free time such a precious commodity that attending regular group meetings is out of the question.

Caroline Hull, a Manassas woman who decided to give up her career with an international computer firm to stay home with her four children, started a group with the interests of busy mothers in mind.

She started "Connections," a newsletter that would "focus on home business as a means of bridging the gap between home and career," she said. From a computer set up in the laundry room of her suburban home, Hull puts out a newsletter on home businesses that she sells for $9.95 a year.

If women in a man's world think they have trouble being taken seriously, Hull said, they should consider the plight of women working out of their homes. Scheduling meetings around their children's car pools and getting interrupted from business calls by household emergencies, such women often are perceived as unprofessional.

Though that perception is changing as more and more employers explore at-home work options for their employees, she said, many women seek out others who are in the same boat for services and clients.

"Many of us have opted to operate in an arena where many of those judgments won't be made," she said. "Part of my goal with connections is to prove that this is viable, it's done."