How To Win New Business With Corporates

Elizabeth A. Vazquez is the President, CEO and Co-Founder of WEConnect InternationalThe NextWomen ‘How-To’ Theme.

Elizabeth A. Vazquez is the President, CEO and Co-Founder of WEConnect International, a corporate led non-profit that helps to empower women business owners to succeed in global markets.

Griselda spoke with Elizabeth about her work to connect enterprising women to corporate opportunities.

GKT: Elizabeth, thank you for joining me today.

EAV: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate the follow-up.

GKT: Can you tell me how you started WEConnect International?

EAV: About five years ago a number of very large multinational corporations mostly based in the United States that were a part of a US non-profit called the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) created WEConnect to find women in business in the United States, certify that they were women owned and then connect them to corporate members that want to buy from women owned businesses in the United States.

This experience over time, (over 10 years) has been a very positive experience and so a number of the industry leaders said well, if it's good business to buy from women owned businesses in the United States why wouldn’t we do this everywhere we do business - to source inclusively and find women owned businesses that we can buy from.

The challenge of course was that at the time there was no global organization that found women in business, certified that they were women in business, developed their capacity to be more competitive and then introduced them to our corporate members.

So they decided to create WEConnect International and I was a part of that process and the only non-corporate executive on our board of directors.

GKV: I find that very interesting. So how did you get in as the only non-corporate executive board member?

EAV: At the time I was working with a non-profit organization called Quantum Leaps and the founder of that organisation, Virginia Littlejohn and I were working on best practices across countries that help to grow women owned businesses. That might be policy, it might be technology as an enabler, and access to finance but very little was being done in case of access to markets. We all know that that is the most important thing.

Women in businesses can have all the help and financing in the world but if they can’t sell their products or services then they are not going to be in business for long.

So when we saw this gap, recognized that there was a deep need to share the model we had been working with. Corporations that were part of the WBENC global business community got together to brainstorm with WBENC to see what could be done outside the United States and what that should look like. And ultimately the corporations, WBENCS and Quantum Leaps all agreed that there needed to be a new entity whose mission is to create market access for women owned businesses and that’s really how it happened.

GKV: It makes sense to take it outside the US because all the large companies have branches everywhere.

EAV: Absolutely. 95% of all consumers are actually living outside the US and so there ultimately needed to be a connection between the women owned businesses in the United States and women owned business outside the United States.

GKV: What are some of the services you provide to the women?

EAV: The first step is really letting women know that WEconnect exists and why it's important to self-register or get certified. If they are not in our database (which represents women in business in over 50 countries) then we don’t know they exist and more importantly our corporate members don’t know that they exist. We may already know some of them because they may be large and have corporate clients but we may not be doing business with some of our other corporate clients.

The next step is to identify their needs.

What can we do to help them access the knowledge and networks that would make them more competitive and better positioned to go after these larger contracts?

This doesn’t mean that WEConnect international provides all this support. We very consciously partner with global and local partners that have a lot of expertise in the things I mentioned earlier, i.e. access to finance, how to grow a business in general and how to become a part of a business association. So we encourage these women in business to join these other partner networks to encourage them to join trade missions, local events etc.

For example if we have local presence we do 'Meet The Buyer' events where we bring the women in business to centres to come and meet actual buyers, talk with them and hear from the buyers what they look for from a vendor, what kinds of products or services they are looking for at the time and how they source things in general. So there are lots of opportunities in general. These events are proving to be hugely important.

We also partner with other organisations like the international trade centre to bring together hundreds of buyers and sellers to talk about what business opportunities exist.

From events done so far, at least $6million in business is done over the two days of the conference so again we focus on results.

There is a lot of education and capacity development that needs to be done on all fronts with our partners, corporate members and women in business owners but at the end of the day it's about business. We want them to be doing more business so providing platforms to make that easier is really important.

Businesses in our network also use our online global database to search for what they are looking for so they can sort by type, industry, name, and location. There are lots of ways for them to find each other virtually online and in person.

GKV: Recently, I met a female business owner who has paid £8000 to go to a Meet The Buyer event. Do you charge a lot for yours?

EAV: That’s a good question because I was thinking she didn’t go to one of ours! Ours are usually free. It’s a part of being self-registered or being certified. There is a fee for being registered. We try to keep it low generally. Frankly it doesn’t cover the cost of sending out an assessor. We really try very hard not to charge additional fees because we want to keep the barriers for entry low. Now, if we don’t have a sponsor for an event we really have to cover the cost for then we’ll charge but generally we try to charge very little or nothing.

GKV: So what’s the criterion for joining your database?

EAV: A women owned business is defined as one that is women controlled by at least 51% of the company. Meaning that if our corporate members make the effort to include these women in their supplier base and ultimately buy from them then they know that that money will go to those women and not to an uncle or cousin. It's really important that women have more access to these larger contracting opportunities because right now on average our corporate members spend about $700billion on products and services every year and we estimate that on average they are spending only about 1% with women owned businesses.

So women owned business are literally invisible in the large corporate and government value chains and so we have strict criteria to help ensure that WEConnect has a positive impact on women’s ability to acquire wealth and create jobs.

GKV: So in your personal opinion what do you think is holding us back?

EAV:

Sometimes it’s ourselves because we are not thinking big enough and we need to take advantage of opportunities like this.

Where we have some of the biggest companies in the world saying we want to buy from women but the women have to opt in to this. They have to choose to want to be found.

They have to make the effort to become good companies, to have the best quality products or services and also to want to scale.

GKV: How is going through WEConnect different from approaching the corporates directly?

EAV: It's not different. Companies are not just giving contracts to women because they are women. 

We try to let the women know about the opportunities but they still have to compete just like everyone else to get these contracts.

What’s different is that there is at least one person within this company that is committed to at least going out to actively find these women owned businesses to ensure that they are being included in these opportunities and that is a very different situation to what we’ve had in the past.

GKV: How mature is the WEConnect branch here in the UK?

EAV: We are only 3.5 years old. This year we will have a presence/ office in 15 countries and most regions of the world. In the US, Australia, just launching in South Africa, Nigeria, Indonesia, China and India. We are in some really important markets and in Europe we started with the UK.

It's been challenging for a number of reasons to build the infrastructure but we have so much genuine commitment from our corporate partners and we have so much amazing women owned business in the UK who absolutely want to grow their business but getting them to commit to yet another organization in the UK is challenging. There are already so many great organisations in the UK. In the UK there may also be a bandwidth issue and so we have to do an even better job of educating the UK and markets outside the UK about the value proposition and why this is not positive discrimination or some other illegal form of privacy protection or intervention. There are many misunderstandings about the intention, the need and about the legal ability to do this work.

GKV: The thing about the UK, at least from what I see, is that there are so many women’s networks. It’s just ridiculous. Entrepreneurship is on the rise, everybody is thinking of starting their own business, particularly women and most of them are starting service based businesses and networks because they recognize that there is a need and demand for communities where women feel they belong. At the same time I can clearly see the position of WEConnect in the market because there aren’t a lot of organizations helping women in the UK to get into the corporate supply chain at the moment.

What advice do you have for any woman reading this now and thinking, I could do some work with corporates but I’m not sure how to go about it?

EAV:

In general, the first step is to do some research. Why do you want to grow your company? What do you think your potential is?

Then get involved in one of the local organizations in your community that support small business growth especially if you are a woman in business. Look at the women focused initiatives as well as the other mixed groups like the local chamber of commerce. I do encourage you to look at both.

If the business meets the WEConnect criteria, I would hope that they would consider self-registering for free on our website so that they have the third party verification that they are a woman in business so that they can take advantage of a lot of the things that we talked about today. It’s not for everyone. If they don’t want to grow their business and create jobs and do the hard work to compete in the industry and meet the standards then WEConnect is not a good fit for their company. If they want to grow their business however, and want contact with growth-oriented businesses from all over the world and corporates then I do hope that they'd consider getting involved.

They can start by reading success stories such as those on The NextWomen. What are the stories, what are the challenges? Do some research. 

What can you learn from the many great interviews that The NextWomen have done in the past so that you are not starting from scratch?

GKV: Thank you so much for joining me for this interview Elizabeth.

EAV: Wonderful. Thank you for having me.

Griselda Kumordzie Togobo (ACA, MPhil) is a Business Growth Consultant to independent professionals and small business owners. She specializes in using high-impact but low-cost business growth strategies to improve profitability. She is very passionate about supporting women in business through her educational workshops, seminars and speaking engagements. Griselda runs AWOVI Consulting, a consultancy whose vision is to help business owners increase their profitability, cash flow and productivity. 

She also writes on entrepreneurship, personal development and small business management issues for various publications, at her blog and at Huffington Post UK.

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