Woman to Woman: Supporting Women’s Entrepreneurship Through the Power of the Purse

There’s a well-known saying that if you truly wish to support a cause you should “put your money where your mouth is” – meaning not only that talk means little without action to back it up, but that supporting a cause financially beats verbal praise alone.

So it is as well with women’s entrepreneurship: one of the best ways that women-owned firms can be supported is by purchasing their products and services.
pink purse
This pursuit is becoming easier for women-owned purveyors of consumer products through a growing number of online marketplaces focused solely or predominantly on products made by women-owned firms. Perhaps the most well-known is etsy.com, geared toward smaller scale handmade goods, but there are others recently coming online:

  • ananasa.com, an online marketplace based in the Middle East,
  • farandwidecollective.com, a site that sources products from developing economies,
  • pink51.com, which exhorts visitors to “shop with a purpose” – meaning that a portion of all sales are donated to women-focused causes,
  • shop.plumalley.co, sister site of plumalley.co, which invests in women-owned and -led businesses and is based in New York City, and
  • rosiemade.com, which offers goods made by women-owned firms in the USA, and which is meant to remind us of Rosie “We Can Do It” the Riveter.

The biggest potential impact may come through a new initiative spearheaded by Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, in partnership with WEConnect International and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). In 2012 Walmart debuted an online marketplace for women-owned products under the “Empowering Women Together” moniker as a part of their Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative launched in 2011. Now, they are expanding that effort to include a “woman-owned” label on products not only online but in stores. (See this recent Bloomberg Businessweek article for more information.) This could take the Power of the Purse to a whole new level.

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!

Whither Women’s Enterprise in the US? A New Roadmap Points the Way

Just a few days ago, a multi-year labor of love was born – when The Roadmap to 2020: Fueling the Growth of the Women’s Enterprise Development was published. While the venue was the annual conference of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), the participation of many women’s business organizations helped make this event happen: from the early support of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) and the contributions from women’s business association leaders throughout the report, to financial contributions from individual women business owners as well as associations. Corporate support from IBM also helped propel the project from the idea/discussion stage to writing and publication. And, of course, the stalwart stewardship of Quantum Leaps’ CEO Virginia Littlejohn, who conceived the project and kept it moving toward fruition, was integral to its completion.

Womenable, I’m proud to say, played an important role in writing, editing, and helping to structure the project report. But, while I am blogging here to make sure that womenablers everywhere are aware of this effort and will take the time to download and read the Roadmap report news release and the full report, I’m not going to encapsulate or summarize the report’s conclusions and recommendations here; I will let you do that for yourselves (the executive summary of the 76-page report is found on pages 2-5).

No, what I’d like to do here is reflect on the development of the Roadmap, and the process we took toward its completion. It was a long, sometimes arduous and Sisyphean journey, but ultimately a very rewarding one, because – as we women know – the journey matters as much as the destination. Here’s what I’ve taken away from our multi-year, collaborative effort to bring this project to fruition:

  • Diversity and inclusion is hard, but absolutely essential: Let’s face it, we humans naturally gravitate toward people who look, talk and think like ourselves. However, diversity of thought, of backgrounds and experiences, and of vision is the only thing that gets us to move forward out of our comfort zones. In building a movement as well as charting a path into unknown territory, it is only by triangulating from several different points of view that we can reach a new destination. And we womenablers know, as we work toward leveling the playing field in the arenas in which we work, that inclusion matters;
  • Thinking ‘out of the box’ can also be difficult: It is also very hard, but likewise essential, that we try to stretch ourselves outward from incremental change to thinking more ‘out of the box’ – and to applying lessons learned in other fields to our own endeavors. While we may not have always succeeded in every topic covered in this report, we all realize that evolutionary change takes too long, and we need to be more revolutionary in our policies, programs and actions;
  • Timing is everything: While it seemed at times as though the Roadmap would never see the light of day, Virginia and I knew that – when the time was right and the stars aligned – it would all come together. In a collaborative process such as this one was, things can frequently take much longer than one might like, but for the recommendations contained in this report to be taken up by stakeholders in the public and private sectors, it was important to take the time to get everyone and everything in alignment. I think that most leaders of the women’s enterprise movement would agree that publishing a report with this level of mutual cooperation and ownership would not have been possible even five years ago; and
  • Margaret Mead was right: As the noted anthropologist once said (in one of my favorite quotes of all time), “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” In this case, it means that – in addition to the involvement of many writers, thinkers, and supporters – it was only a small, hardy, and persistent band of womenablers that was able to push this ball all the way up and over the proverbial hill.

Those of us who have labored to bring this report to life urge you to take the time to read the report – in pieces or in its entirety – and share it with your womenabling friends. We hope that you will not only recognize its inclusivity, but come away with a sense of pride and satisfaction that the women’s enterprise movement in the US has progressed to a point that such a collection of combined, collaborative wisdom and vision is possible. This endeavor is also unique in that it is led by the women’s business community itself, separate and apart from public sector policies and programs. Indeed, a central philosophical core of this effort is one of shared ownership and responsibility, as opposed to pointing out gaps and expecting others to come to the rescue.

What’s next? Ownership and action, of course – but also the cultivation of “roadmap processes” in other countries as well. Stay tuned for news on that front!