The cofounder and CEO of WEConnect International, Elizabeth Vazquez was raised with her younger sister by a single mother battling addiction and depression.
As part of the answers to a set of email questions I posed to Elizabeth, many of which revolved around what the WEConnect International diversity engagement organisation does, this candid revelation had me scrambling for the telephone.
Elizabeth’s further admissions, including listing “surviving childhood” as one of her top 3 achievements, and working with big business (something she grew up not understanding or trusting) as the least expected thing to happen in her life, invested what had seemed a very worthy topic with a real human connection. It was enough to overpower any prejudices I have when it comes to dealing with Americans and time differences and organise to speak.
(Eventually, Elizabeth, who is based in Washington DC and will actually be in Australia this month – May 23 – to launch WEConnect Australasia, and I sorted out what ‘14 hours ahead’ meant to me, and more importantly to her.)
Born in Mexico, but raised in “sunny” Arizona by her mother, grandmother and her grandmother’s two sisters, Elizabeth Vazquez studied political science as a pre-law college student. Coming to realise how long it can take to change the law, she switched to international relations: “I went, as a graduate student, to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy to better understand development economics and international negotiation and conflict resolution.”
Her position with WEConnect came through her work in not for profits.
“I worked with Virginia Littlejohn, who is my great mentor,” explains Elizabeth very early one recent morning. “She ran Quantum Leaps, a non-profit for which I worked. Several multinational corporate leaders from the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) in the US came to us to develop a model for engaging women business owners based outside of the US. The idea became so powerful the corporations ultimately decided to incorporate a new non-profit called WEConnect International in 2009, and I was asked to be its CEO.”
In just two years the organisation has become active in countries that together represent over 40 percent of the world population. WEConnect International harnesses the interest large global corporations have in pioneering and fostering a wider vision of global supplier development and inclusion. The organisation’s corporate members – from Accenture to Walmart via everything in between – represent about US$700 billion in annual purchasing power. The aim of the corporate members is to spend more of this annual purchasing power on women business owners that are ready to compete for contracts. These corporations understand that a diversified supplier base better reflects their markets, increases shareholder value and enhances competitive advantage.
WEConnect identifies, educates, registers, and certifies women’s business enterprises that are at least 51 percent owned, managed, and controlled by one or more women. It then works with partners in every region of the world to make it easier for this supply (women businesses with the services and products) and demand (the corporations and businesses with the contracts) to connect.
By organising demand, WEConnect has been able to attract and engage women business owners that want to grow their companies and create jobs.
How then does this differ from the many other organisations out there working to generate diverse channels of supply and so develop under-utilised businesses?
Firstly, says Elizabeth, there’s no global organisation certifying for ownership, management and control of women businesses specifically.
Secondly, initiatives considered to be similar are usually organised by supply.
“They’ve identified the women in businesses and are doing an amazing job of developing their capacity,” explains Elizabeth.
“They may even be introducing them to some local market opportunity,” she continues.
However, what WEConnect does is connect supply and demand through the significant commitment of its corporation members leveraging their purchasing power to get their prime suppliers locally to consider using diverse businesses and women-owned businesses, particularly. In Australia The Westpac Group is a founding member of WEConnect Australasia and is launching with Elizabeth and her colleague, Sue Lawton into the local market this May .
According to Elizabeth, her business models is a new space. Usually, the business model is obsessed with what supply wants to supply, or what development organisations think should be created without looking at what it is the market actually wants: “We are asking: what is it the $62 trillion economy is actually buying in products and services and how do we develop capacity specific to demand?”
Based on these aspects, Elizabeth believes WEConnect has a “new way of doing economic development.”
The Australian connection
Data collected by WEConnect shows that globally women are awarded less than 1 percent of business contract opportunities offered by large corporations and governments. In Australia, local research findings indicate that women are starting small businesses at twice the rate of men, but men still outweigh women as small business owners about two to one. Research also reveals strong growth in the rate of women starting up businesses over the past five years compared with men. However, very few female-operated SMEs export, and the SMEs that are predominantly operated by women (and which do export) have consistently exported at a lower rate than men.
Elizabeth indicates, there’s something wrong with the equation: “No one is looking for charity, here. Women-owned businesses want to show the world their vision – the need in the market for the product or service they can provide. What’s required is the equal opportunity to compete for that vision to be realised; to be able to compete on a level playing field.”
Operators may have no experience selling who they are, may be under capitalised or asset poor, and so you would expect they would miss out. Couple that scenario with this all-to familiar scenario – operators with no role models or champions who can introduce them to the system and network – and the businesses are even further disadvantaged.
It seems who and what you know are important. Unfortunately, regardless of the market, women are always the under utilised category.
No victims here
That’s not to see women businesses as victims. Elizabeth believes the issue of victim is a ‘funny’ one. Victim assumes it is all in the power of others and not within our own power to change that balance or take responsibility for our part in maintaining that balance. Entrepreneurship, the ability to create and provide innovative solutions to the world’s smallest and largest problems is well within our grasp and is a very empowering concept.
“Women have to take ownership of the fact they do not always think big enough, or go after larger contract opportunities,” says Elizabeth, “but once people have the concepts, even if they never go there, they will fundamentally think of themselves and their role in the market differently.”
Wall, what wall?
If, as Elizabeth points out, all you have ever seen is a wall… and if you have never been exposed to seeing that wall with people climbing over it, blowing a hole through it, tunnelling under it, then a wall is all you see.
It’s why she sees her greatest challenge being learning how to effectively message the urgency of the work WEConnect is doing to try to help more women engage successfully as vendors in global value chains.
“Increasing individual and collective purchasing power as a lever for shifting how the world does business, so that both men and women contribute to and benefit from delivering solutions to the challenges we all face, is what’s important,” finishes Elizabeth.