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Imagine building a consensus among hundreds of women entrepreneurs, corporate CEOs, academicians, government officials and nonprofit leaders. That was the formidable task of the Women's Economic Summit held in mid October. Although no momentous decisions were made, the groundwork was laid for programs that will help women entrepreneurs.
Not all participants agreed with the summit's agenda, however. Some who spoke to Entrepreneur off the record felt the meeting was geared toward a single goal: expanding the Women's Business Development Center network.
Despite such differences in opinion, the summit addressed issues vitally important to women:
Summit organizers discovered that many women weren't aware of available training resources. The solution: a Web site featuring a comprehensive list of such resources for businesses at different growth stages.
The summit also highlighted the need to ensure women develop strong entrepreneurial management skills, primarily by increasing the number of Small Business Development Centers aimed at women.
The summit also focused on the debt and equity needs of existing firms, particularly those in service sectors. Goals of the business finance initiative include:
1. Replicating existing successful state finance programs. "This means adding credit enhancers like SBA loan guarantees and creating more local collateral pools," says Lindsey Johnson Suddarth of Women Inc., a nonprofit organization for women entrepreneurs.
2. Creating a new model for lending that recognizes brains, ideas, people and contracts as assets.
3. Advocating the collection of loan data by race and sex.
Summit organizers also plan to use a Philadelphia program as a model for creating volunteer networks that connect women who have successfully completed the equity process with those seeking funding.
The need for improving market opportunities is clear: Only 3 percent of private-sector contracts and 2 percent of government contracts go to women.
Susan Bari of the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) identified some steps to help overcome the inequity: increasing procurement and simplifying the certification process for women in government contracting. WBENC and the National Women Business Owners Corp., which both certify women-owned business enterprises, have agreed to create a universally recognized certification format.
Summit participants also want to encourage corporations to increase supplier diversity. "The key to a good program is commitment from CEOs," says Bari. In response, summit leaders are creating a series of regional CEO Covenants in which corporations with successful programs encourage others to set and achieve supplier diversity goals.
Finally, participants passed a resolution requesting "Women business enterprises be treated with the same presumptions [of historic underutilization] as minority business enterprises when government programs provide competitive enhancements for minorities and women under the rubric of socially and economically disadvantaged statuses."
Once the programs are finalized, summit organizers will create a master plan they'll present to Congress and the president during women's history month in March.
Canadian and U.S. entrepreneurs who want to participate in the invitation-only Canada/USA Businesswomen Trade Summit May 17-21 must apply by February 15. For details, call (416) 920-5114 or visit http://www.entrepreneurmag.com/summit.html
Women Inc., (800) 930-3993, http://www.womeninc.com
Women's Business Development Center, (888) 447-5023
Women's Business Enterprise National Council, (202) 862-4810, http://www.womenconnect.com/wbenc