Creative-thinking WBEs open doors to opportunity
WBE certification brings support and potential opportunities to even the smallest diverse suppliers
Many successful WBEs got their start by identifying an unmet need in the marketplace
By Sue Marquette Poremba
Certification through the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) brings with it a pipeline of support and networking for women-owned businesses that are interested in becoming suppliers for corporations, government agencies and other organizations.
Likewise, with that certification in place, enterprises can feel more confident about the suppliers they are contracting, says Laura Taylor, outgoing chairperson for WBENC and a supply chain expert with mailing, shipping and other technology solutions company Pitney Bowes.
Taylor admits that WBENC certification isn’t going to be a fit for every single woman-owned business, but for a business that wants to partner and grow with Fortune 1000 companies, applying for certification is a vital step. The certification process includes a review of the supplier’s financial management, strategic plan and ownership, plus a site visit.
“Corporations depend on these certifications to vet the business and ensure that it’s a diverse business,” says Taylor. “Because WBENC now has about 12,000 WBEs, there is a great database available. If my company has a specific need, I can go to the database to search for potential businesses.”
Pitney Bowes sees the benefits
Pitney Bowes (Stamford, CT) is a strong proponent of supplier diversity, says Taylor.
Diverse suppliers offer flexible and creative solutions for the supply chain, she notes. They bring innovative ideas that fill needs for the business. Pitney Bowes believes it’s important to do business with suppliers that reflect its client base. And there are the obvious benefits to supporting economic growth in the company’s hometown, in its home state, and across the country.
“Pitney Bowes has more than 1.5 million small business clients,” Taylor explains. “Many of our suppliers are also small businesses.”
WBEs of all sizes and stages
“WBEs are just one of the diverse categories we recognize, but we’ve seen terrific growth in women-owned businesses,” says Taylor. Pitney Bowes has developed business relationships with WBEs that are just getting started, as well as with women who have long been part of the corporate world and are now starting their own businesses. “WBEs are a vital part of our diversity program.”
Pitney Bowes often has a need for engineering services. “The procurement manager and the supplier diversity manager work together to define the capabilities and requirements needed,” Taylor explains.
WBEs have played an important role in the partnership between tech services and marketing, Taylor adds. For example, technology suppliers developed mobile apps for marketing purposes.
“The innovative solutions and flexibility that these diverse suppliers bring to the table is a real benefit to us,” Taylor says.
General Mills relies on diverse products, diverse suppliers
Fostering diversity and inclusion is a top business strategy for General Mills (Minneapolis, MN). The company, best known for its breakfast cereals and Pillsbury products, follows through on its commitment by turning to supplier diversity when building business relationships. The reason is clear, according to Darren Harmon, supplier diversity director.
“In a marketplace that’s becoming increasingly diverse, it makes good business sense to strive for a supplier base that reflects our consumer base,” he says.
Each division and department within General Mills now has annual goals in place to improve supplier diversity efforts. The company also encourages qualified women-owned businesses to complete WBENC’s credentialing process.
Once a business is certified as a WBE, it can register with General Mills’ supplier diversity office. The office will determine if the WBE’s product or service fits the corporation’s needs, and facilitate referrals and introductions.
Corporations like Pitney Bowes and General Mills have gone a long way to support and nurture their WBE and other diverse suppliers. Here are some WBEs that are doing well in a variety of tech-related areas.
WBE Near Me offers CTO and thought leadership
Near Me (near-me.com, San Francisco, CA) allows companies to create peer-to-peer marketplaces. According to CEO and co-founder Michelle Regner, the business got its start in an unusual way.
“I was running another company, and we signed a five-year lease,” she says, “hoping we would grow into it.” That did not happen. “We ended up renting out desks in our office space for an hour or a day or a week, and that led to networking with all sorts of potential customers.”
Regner and her business partner saw the opportunities available in this type of sharing, so together they created the space-sharing company DesksNear.Me. Meanwhile, she knew she wanted to develop software for corporations and start-ups that would create an infrastructure to support other sharing marketplaces in various verticals, including office and workspace resources.
Near Me is a platform-as-a-service, or as Regner calls it, a marketplace in a box. “We act as a company’s CTO,” she says.
Marketplace businesses can be difficult because of fluctuations in supply and demand. What Regner found is that her clients are interested in this new way of buying, sharing and renting, just as she was, but they don’t have the internal structure to stay on top of marketplace shifts. That’s where Near Me’s technology comes in.
An opportune observation
Near Me is popular with startups that don’t have the in-house expertise or infrastructure to manage resource sharing on their own. Corporations are also interested because of the quick turnaround for a quality marketplace.
Regner’s flagship product DesksNear.Me built its corporate clientele after it negotiated a contract with W Hotels. The chain realized that it had underutilized meeting rooms. “They also discovered there were a lot of people working in the lobby who weren’t guests in the hotel. So hotel officials decided to open up their meeting spaces and invite clientele who might want a better work space than a couch in the lobby.” DesksNear.Me’s white-label platform allowed the hotel to match the open meeting rooms with potential users under the W Hotels brand. And Regner says working with a large corporation has given DesksNear.Me additional credibility.
At the same time, Near Me is working with large corporate clients to create customizable peer-to-peer marketplaces all over the world. “DesksNear.Me is only the first marketplace on our platform,” Regner says.
Pixelkeet combines technical and creative expertise for corporate applications
Jessica Greenwalt was recently named one of Inc. magazine’s Ten Women to Watch in Tech. She is the founder of graphic design and web development firm Pixelkeet (San Francisco, CA), which provides web development and app design for a growing number of well-known companies and organizations, including LinkedIn and the University of California-Berkeley.
She regularly gives talks about web-based technologies, which is how she made initial contact with many of her clients, who approached her after her speeches to ask her to work on projects for them.
Greenwalt initially did graphic design and development as a freelancer, but she had always wanted to own her own business. She had also enjoyed the coding classes she took in high school. “I decided to create a firm that was friendly to people in creative fields, and made use of the technical aspects I enjoyed.”
Working with large corporations has allowed Greenwalt to spread her creative and technical wings. “They have the funds to do some amazing things,” she observes.
Pixelkeet has been in business since 2012. Her next step is to begin the certification process for WBENC. She expects that becoming a certified WBE will help her connect with other woman-owned businesses. “Women have to help each other out,” she says. “I think it’s important to build that networking base.”
Abator streamlines data and develops software solutions
Since 1984, Abator (Pittsburgh, PA) has helped government and corporate clients efficiently gather, manage and use their database information.
“We help clients develop custom software solutions for regulatory reporting. That’s one of the biggest issues any corporation or government agency has to face,” says Abator president and CEO Joanne Peterson.
She began her business in her basement. “I had created an eastern services division in 1980 for an Ohio-based company, but three years later the company closed down the office one Friday afternoon.” Rather than go out and look for a job, she decided to build on client relationships she had developed under two prior employers. She negotiated Abator’s first contract with Westinghouse Electric in 1983.
She doesn’t have a degree in IT, but does have a BS in economics and management, which she earned in 1986.
Peterson’s company got its WBE certification in 1989. “We were awarded a contract with the state of Illinois, after the state did a survey of all their vendors. They classified us as a ‘large WBE’ because of our sales,” she chuckles. “They eventually came in line with other organizations’ regulations, and then we were no longer ‘large.’”
Today Abator is successful but remains small, employing just eleven people. “We got that first certification as a convenience to our customer, not realizing at that time the impact it would have going forward,” Peterson says.
Certification brings opportunities
Certification brought Abator more business from the state of Illinois, and “we decided from then on we would make sure we were a certified WBE in any state where we were working,” Peterson says.
Certification has also been a marketing tool for the company and allowed it to be more competitive. “That’s important in government contracts,” she adds.
Peterson has noticed that as a certified WBE, she can help corporations and government agencies meet their supplier diversity targets. It has been a win-win.
Abator is currently completing a migration for a major New York State agency from old mainframe hardware and software to a Microsoft .NET environment. “New York State used to have a master contract for IT services, and we bid on that contract just as our New York WBE certification came through. Because we were on that master contract, we were invited to bid for our current job.”
Sharing the wealth with other WBEs
Peterson relies on WBEs when she needs to procure goods and services for her company. When she bought her company’s new building, she used her WBE connections to look for an architect and a builder who would work with WBE suppliers.
“Being a small business owner, you’re out there by yourself. But when you network, or when you go to a WBENC conference, it helps you get other perspectives,” Peterson says.
PCN delivers enterprise technology projects
PC Network Inc (PCN, Philadelphia, PA) is a technology infrastructure services company that manages the IP technologies underpinning next-gen enterprise networks and delivers critical technology projects for its customers. The company was founded twenty-six years ago, initially as a network systems integrator and value-added reseller. Katrin Hillner joined the company ten years ago as a consultant. After eighteen months, she took over majority ownership and is now president and CEO.
“I bought PCN because I saw its potential,” she says. She bought it just as the tech bubble burst. But the fundamentals of the company were well established, and Hillner was able to keep the company alive and even growing, when so many others folded.
PCN now serves a global customer base. “One of our core service offerings is DDI/IPAM: we help our glo-bal 1000 enterprise customers compete in the rapidly changing world of the IP-enabled technologies and the networking of everything,” Hillner explains. “We do that as partners to leading technology vendors, through our service provider partners, and directly for enterprise customers who manage their own networks. In the IT space, half the world outsources their IT and the rest operates their own infrastructure. We can work in either scenario.”
Excited about the capabilities
Hillner’s interest in IT progressed over the course of her career as she became aware of just how much business objectives rely on IT. “I came to it as a user first. Then it was a budget line item and essential tool for different businesses that I ran. Joining PCN got me excited about all the different capabilities IT enables: it’s used everywhere and is changing how we do everything.”
Her company enables secure global management of critical innovations like mobile device management and bring-your-own-device schemes, and supports eCommerce, cloud services and the “Internet of Things.” At a time when enterprises are increasingly dependent on networks to transact business, PCN helps eliminate the risks that come with the proliferation of devices, and works to ensure that its customers can operate effectively and innovate successfully.
Discovering WBE status
When Hillner acquired the majority interest in PCN, the company officially became a woman-owned business. PCN was certified in 2007.
Status as a WBE gave the company access to procurement opportunities and, Hillner says, leveled the playing field. “I’ve benefited from certification in the relationships I’ve been able to build with new customers,” she says.
Her initial foray into supplier diversity came when pursuing a job in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. “One of my teaming partners said that since the company was now woman-owned, I should get certified. That raised the antennae for me. Before then, I hadn’t been exposed to certification.”
She has learned that in the world of small businesses, patience and persistence pay off. It has sometimes taken her several tries to land a first contract with a client.
“Corporations are facing a lot of competitive pressures, and they are looking for teaming partners among WBEs and other diverse suppliers. My advice is this: it’s a long cycle and you need to appreciate that corporations are facing their own pressures. Figure out how what you do can help them succeed in their markets, and patiently and persistently pitch your offering.”
EDI: success in environmental and engineering services
In 1991, Deborah Sawyer decided to take her experience as an environmental scientist and consultant and start her own business. Environmental Design International (EDI, Chicago, IL) offers environmental, engineering and industrial hygiene services to a number of Fortune 500 companies and government agencies.
“Within the last ten years, we’ve made great progress with Fortune 500 clients in the retail and energy sectors. So much, in fact, that this work has become a major part of our client mix,” Sawyer says.
Sawyer’s relationship with these clients came about in a variety of venues, such as diversity events and industry-sponsored networking opportunities. “It’s not glamorous, and it requires patience and commitment,” Sawyer is quick to point out. “But one handshake and quick conversation today can progress into a relationship that yields a multi-year, high-dollar contract down the road.”
Improving her chances to break through
To improve her company’s opportunities, Sawyer decided to pursue WBENC certification. She understood the benefits that certification could bring.
“We’re combating negative perceptions about minority and women-owned small businesses every day in both the private and public sectors,” she observes. “We have to constantly justify EDI’s existence, and prove ourselves over and over. The best way to put a stop to this is to do your best work, all the time.”
WBENC certification, in addition to others offered by the City of Chicago and State of Illinois, has proven its worth to EDI over the past two decades. The certifications have allowed Sawyer to expand her business, both in size – she began with a handful of employees and now has more than sixty people working for her – and in scope, with the ability to branch into new industry sectors.
“For others who want to expand their businesses, I would say they shouldn’t stop at building relationships with potential clients,” Sawyer advises. “Network with other minority and woman-owned firms as well. These connections can be just as important. They can yield joint ventures for projects, evolve into informal or formal professional support networks, and help keep you up-to-date on the latest in your industry.”
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