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WBENC conference energizes attendees

Linda Denny, left, WBENC president and CEO and Joan Kerr, AT&T exec director of supplier diversity and head of the WBENC global business committee, right, with Quantum Leaps’ Applause awardees Virginia Littlejohn, president and CEO and Elizabeth Vasquez, exec director. 'Women are like teabags: they don’t show their strength until they get into hot water,” says Holli Dorr, president of Hollister Construction Co (Anaheim, CA). She was addressing the 2,000 attendees at Women in Business 2009, the annual conference of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). Dorr is a member of the organization’s board of directors, and one of a handful of Zenith Group members: women who head companies with revenues of more than $50 million a year.

Despite the “hot water” of the current economic situation, the WBEs and their corporate customers who gathered in San Francisco this summer were ready to talk business. They found a range of discussions, workshops and multi-session symposiums designed to help them weather the tough climate and even grow their businesses despite the challenging times.

The bridge to quality
Diversity/Careers editor in chief Kate Colborn, left, interviews WBENC’s Linda Denny during a luncheon break.WBENC was founded in 1997 and held its first conference the next year. Through its fourteen regional partner organizations the council provides third-party certification that a company is owned and managed by women. The number of WBEs certified by WBENC topped 9,000 just before the conference.

This year’s conference theme was “the bridge to quality.” “The corporate members drove the quality theme,” says Linda Denny, WBENC president and CEO.

WBENC is supported by 250 corporate members, and “We know they look for a good product, a good price and good service,” Denny notes. “We asked them what else they were looking for, and quality came up every time.”

Aspects of quality were the topic of a number of presentations and sessions at the conference. An executive roundtable of corporations and top WBEs explored what quality meant to them, and a brace of intensive two-day symposiums addressed the subject in depth.

“Environmental sustainability as a mark of quality” was the topic of one symposium. In the other, WBE attendees got a primer on the Supply Chain Council’s benchmarking system, widely used by large corporations for manufacturing supply-chain development. These sessions were intended to prepare participants for a supplier development mentoring program of the Diverse Manufacturing Supply Chain Alliance.

Single-session workshops for WBEs also focused on quality.

International focus
The international perspective that has been a part of WBENC conferences for some time now was particularly apparent this year. WEConnect UK, launched in early 2008, and WEConnect Canada, launched just this spring, were introduced to WBEs and supporters. “These organizations are built on the model of WBENC,” Denny explains.

Another WBE association will launch in India late this year, and a Chinese WBE association is in the planning stages. Representatives from both prospective groups attended the conference.

One international track workshop was aimed at WBEs just starting down the road to global expansion. Another helped WBEs working to select a country or region to target in their expansion efforts.

A third workshop was hosted by Manny Rosales, national VP of the Latino Coalition and a former assistant admin in the Small Business Administration. Rosales offered detailed information on government and private sources of support for global expansion, and hints on doing business outside the U.S. “In American business you have to know how, but in Mexico you have to know who,” he advises.

Help in tough times
Hands-on instruction for WBEs was part of a seminar explaining the Supply Chain Council’s benchmarking system.WBEs got lots of practical information on surviving and thriving in tough times. Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP) presented a detailed analysis of the implications of government economic stimulus act spending, and tax changes for WBEs and other small businesses.

“Thriving in a challenging economy” was the title of a highly popular two-day, three-session symposium. The sessions covered the importance of preparing thoroughly for a meeting with a corporate buyer; sources and strategies for finding funds when credit is hard to get; and how to make your organization lean.

International awards
Two awards presented the last day of the conference underscored the globalization of the WBENC concept.

2009 International Luminary awards went to government supporters of the British and Canadian WEConnect organizations: Lorely Burt and Helena Guergis.

Burt, the member of Parliament from Solihull in the British Midlands, was instrumental in the development of WEConnect UK, and hosted its launch in the House of Commons in 2008. She is the first female House of Commons chair of the Liberal Democrat party.

Guergis, Canada’s Minister of State, has supported WEConnect Canada since its inception. She recently helped the organization get significant government funding to move its work forward.

KPMG’s Barbara Carbone, left, gets the Alcorn award from Cheryl Stevens of Energy Future Holdings, WBENC board chair.The Applause award recognizes “exceptional accomplishments” that expand opportunities for WBEs and advance WBENC’s mission. Virginia Littlejohn and Elizabeth Vasquez were this year’s recipients.

Littlejohn is president and CEO of Quantum Leaps and a lifelong innovator in women’s business development; Vasquez is Quantum Leaps’ executive director. Quantum Leaps is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the growth of women-owned businesses in the U.S. and internationally. It helped develop WEConnect U.K. and WEConnect Canada.

Another prestigious award was the first William J. Alcorn leadership award, presented to Barbara Carbone, partner at KPMG. Carbone has had several roles at WBENC, including board treasurer and chair of the finance committee. The Alcorn award was established in 2008 to recognize leadership of a WBENC member. It honors William J. Alcorn, chair of WBENC’s first board of directors.

Filling the pipeline
University and business school students who participated in the 2009 Women in Business student entrepreneurship program were introduced to the membership at the Thursday lunch. The women received corporate mentoring and leadership training, and attended workshops throughout the conference.

“Our students have sold products and services to Fortune 50 companies, and a few have launched businesses,” notes Michelle Johnson, director of supplier diversity at the Home Depot, which underwrites most of the program’s funding.

Weathering the storm
From left, Nell Merlino of Count Me In, with U.K. Parliament member Lorely Burt and Staples’ Tara Spann.Nell Merlino, president of Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence, and founder of the “take your daughter to work” movement, was keynote speaker at the Thursday luncheon. “In World War II we had Rosie the Riveter,” she says; “Today we need Ellie the Entrepreneur! Women can create jobs and gain power even in tough times,” she insists.

Linda Denny comments that “This year there was a higher percentage of WBEs attending than usual.” But plenty of corporate members were also on hand. “They are with us, showing their dedication and commitment.”


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