Ruby – a Gem of a Women’s Entrepreneurship Program

I’m just back from Oz, where I joined the board of a wonderful organization – the Global Banking Alliance for Women. Their annual summit, which brought together nearly 100 executives from financial institutions and financial inclusion NGOs from (by my count) 18 countries, was hosted this year in Sydney, Australia by one of the four founding members of the GBA, Westpac Bank. More about the GBA in another blog post, but I’d like to focus in this post on what I feel is the leading corporate program for women entrepreneurs anywhere in the world: Westpac’s Ruby Connection.
Logo for the Ruby Connection
As those of us in the world of women’s enterprise development know, many corporations enter into the “women’s market” by “painting their program pink,” meaning that they dress up an existing market-focused program and slap a “we understand women” label on it. Those programs either fail – because women business owners can see through them pretty easily – or swiftly morph into something more. If they are lucky, they will take on aspects of the Ruby Connection model. Though I’ve been aware of this effort for some time (it was launched back in 2008), it was only after hearing the story of the program’s founding and growth do I now feel certain that this effort is truly a global best practice for any corporation in any industry sector to benchmark against.

The Ruby team, led by the indomitable Larke Riemer, explained the evolution of the program in a day-long series of presentations, which were fascinating. After listening to and thinking about their efforts, I would posit that the program’s success (and it has been very successful to the bottom line of the bank) can be attributed to these five key elements:

  • Long-term, high-level support: Not only has Larke spearheaded the program’s growth since its inception, she has managed to get high-level support from within the bank during that time – two elements that are very hard to maintain in corporate environments, where CEOs and other senior managers move around within, as well as in and out of, a company fairly regularly. Having a long-term “buy and hold” investment view is very important, and hard to maintain. Perhaps it doesn’t hurt that Westpac Bank’s CEO is Gail Kelly, listed by Forbes and others as one of the most powerful businesswomen in the world;
  • Measurement and continuous improvement: It’s often said that what you can’t measure you don’t manage, and tracking ROI has been the bane of the existence of many a target market effort. Westpac measures: hits and stickiness of their website; views of videos; social media followers; net promoter scores among customers; and number of financial products held by customers. Their measurement also consists of sponsoring externally-conducted research, such as a recent study that uncovered the fact that women are far less prepared financially for retirement – which is leading to a first-ever national advertising campaign in the country about “superannuation for women”;
  • Built from the inside out as well as the outside in: The Ruby Connection effort is driven far into the Westpac corporate structure, with ambassadors and champions in nearly every branch. This is another area where many corporations fail – support for a market effort resides in headquarters but not out in the field. Westpac’s branches are empowered to launch “Ruby of the Year” awards locally on an annual basis, which not only drives the Ruby brand into local communities, but gives an otherwise national program a local flavor;
  • Customer-, not product-centric: According to Riemer, Ruby focuses on women writ large, not just Westpac customers. Any woman can become a member of the online Ruby community; she need not be a Westpac account holder. And rather than describe women internally as a market segment, Westpac uses the phrase “the female economy” to describe their focus. A visit to the site will reveal the broad focus of the community, and the affirming atmosphere it creates. One recent example of the cheerleader role that Ruby plays is a recently published book, “The Power of 100,” which profiles 100 women who have shaped Australia, past and present. It was published this past March for the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day; and
  • Establishing a unique, separate brand: Rather than naming Westpac’s efforts in the women’s market the “Westpac Women’s Initiative” or some such, as so many companies do, the Ruby brand is an entirely separate entity by design. While it plays on the red of Westpac’s logo (and is cleverly composed of many Westpac “W’s” shaped into a gemstone), Ruby has a separate website from the women in business page on the Westpac corporate site, and a unique brand identity. This was done on purpose, to make the community friendlier than the “Big Red W” image of Westpac (which is Australia’s oldest and largest corporation). It’s worked extremely well, and is unique in my 20+ year observation of trends in corporate engagement in the women’s enterprise development community.

Kudos to the Ruby Connection – truly a gem of a women’s entrepreneurship support program that it would behoove other corporations interested in the “women’s market” – regardless of their industry – to investigate and emulate.

The New Chain Gang: Women as Suppliers

Time was, corporations parked their womenabling efforts in their corporate social responsibility silos. Now, corporations are far more likely to view women-owned firms as important customers and suppliers than a population in need of charity.

We can date US corporate interest in women business owners as a market back to 1995, when the Center for Women’s Business Research’s seminal report, “Breaking the Boundaries,” was published. That report, based on an analysis of the entire Dun & Bradstreet database, showed that women-owned firms were just as financially stable and creditworthy as the average US firm. The report’s release resulted in a virtual stampede toward women-owned firms by US banks.

Now, a number of global corporations are taking a market development approach to supporting women’s entrepreneurship – readying them to be more valuable links in their supply chains.

The most recent entry is Walmart, the biggest corporation on the planet, which recently announced a four-pronged Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative. One important prong: $100 million USD in grants to women’s enterprise development efforts worldwide.

They join several other corporate giants in firmly planting a flag in the field of women as agents of economic change, rather than recipients of charity. Here are just a few:

  • Coke’s initiative, 5 by 20, aims to empower 5 million women entrepreneurs by the year 2020, by adding them to their retail vendor sales force. They plan to announce other elements of the program soon, as well as the paths by which they will achieve their goal. Let’s hope it includes women’s business association capacity-building!
  • Not to be outdone, Coke’s rival Pepsi has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with USAID and the UN’s World Food Programme to invest in chickpea production in Ethiopia. The project, called Enterprise EthioPEA, aims to double chickpea production in the country and improve childhood nutrition. The majority of the country’s – and the world’s – farmers are women.
  • Clothing company Gap, Inc. was recently recognized for their innovative PACE program (which stands for Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement), which has worked since 2007 in 6 Asian countries to improve the education and business skills of its garment workers.
  • Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women initiative, a 5-year effort launched in 2008, has the aim of increasing the number of business school-educated women in developing economies, pairing them up with corporate mentors in developed economies and partnering with universities and other non-governmental organizations. To date it is active in 22 countries, and is partnering with 75 groups to reach their goal.

These efforts all bode well for WEConnect International, a relatively new NGO that has formed to make the link between women business owners who wish to do business with large corporations and the corporations that are seeking out ways to engage women’s business enterprises in their value chains. WEConnect’s model is based upon that of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) in the US. check out this brief video featuring WEConnect President Elizabeth Vazquez talking about the impact of including more women-owned firms in global corporate value chains:

So here’s to women as contributors of economic value! Are there any other big corporate “women in the value chain” efforts that you know of? Let us know!