Fifty percent of American corporations still spend less than 3 percent of their purchasing dollars with businesses owned by women, according to a Center for Women's Business Research study. Will things ever change? "It's going to take a general education campaign," says Susan Phillips Bari, president of the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) and sponsor of the study, "We all live within comfort zones. Most purchasing offices-in business and in government-tend to do 'business as usual.'"
To help educate corporations, Bari says, "every single woman business owner should be aware of what is going on in the [subcontracting] market and do what she can to provide information to clients she deals with about the benefits of buying from women and minority-owned businesses." WBENC does this through its annual search for "America's Top Corporations," which recognizes corporations that do business with women-owned companies.
Another powerful way to turn corporations around, suggests Bari, is to "vote with your checkbook." Before buying phone service, Internet service or even office supplies, investigate the company's purchasing policy. Do they buy from women-owned businesses? If not, find a company that does.
Perhaps the best way to promote more contracting opportunities for women entrepreneurs is to land a corporate contract yourself and prove how well you can deliver. Bari says becoming certified as a Women's Business Enterprise (WBE) is the first step women business owners can take to get into the contracts arena with major corporations. (WBENC provides certification for firms that are 51 percent owned, managed and controlled by women.) She also cites networking, attending trade shows and being visible on a local, regional and national level as key ways for female entrepreneurs to prep their companies for corporate contracts.
Once you've developed a relationship with a corporation, make referrals for other women business owners, and act as an advocate urging the corporation to consider more women-owned companies as suppliers.
"Like going to business school on your lunch hour" is how founder Marsha Firestone describes meetings of the Women Presidents' Organization (WPO), a national organization for entrepreneurial women whose companies gross more than $2 million annually (or $1 million, for service-based businesses).
While working for a women's business organization, Firestone noticed there were many support networks for start-up women business owners, but few for established women entrepreneurs. "There was a need for a peer advisory group that focused on both business and personal development," explains Firestone, who founded the WPO in 1999 in New York City.
The more than 25 chapters nationwide-in cities including Atlanta, Denver, Oklahoma City, San Diego and Seattle-meet monthly. Each group is limited to 20 women presidents, who set an agenda that allows them to bond and work together as a peer advisory group. There are also annual conferences and a monthly newsletter.
"I leave the [WPO] meetings feeling like I can accomplish anything! And I walk away with much valuable information," says Debra Phelan Hoffman, 42-year-old owner of System Office Products Inc. in South River, New Jersey. Hoffman especially appreciates the moral and technical support the group offers. "This is not a shy group. Everyone has stories and experiences to share. And since it's confidential, everyone feels that candor works best." For more information on the WPO, visit www.womenpresidentsorg.com or call (212)688-4114.
Aliza Pilar Sherman is an Internet pioneer, netpreneur, speaker and author of the book PowerTools for Women in Business: 10 Ways to Succeed in Life and Work.
- System Office Products Inc.
(732) 257-5333, http://www.systemofficeproducts.baweb.com/systemofficeproducts.htm
- Woman's Business Enterprise National Council
(202) 872-5515, http://www.wbenc.org