Where Women Mean Business

 

The Women’s Business Enterprise Council South definitely puts its money where its mission is: its recently renovated office suite was designed by a woman, Angela O’Byrne of Perez Architects, and constructed by the woman-owned firm Colmex Construction.

“Men can come in here,” said WBECS President and CEO Phala Mire with a laugh, “but they work for women!”

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WBEC South is an affiliate of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, with territory including Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and the Florida panhandle. Having existed in New Orleans under a variety of names for the past 28 years, the organization recently opened a second office in Nashville.

While the organization exists to support and promote women-owned businesses, and includes a process for formally certifying these enterprises, Mire quickly and clearly differentiates it from other programs of the same ilk. She particularly resists being lumped in with Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) programs, the very name of which makes her cringe.

“So many times we focus on this from a negative standpoint,” she said. “We focus on success.”

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Although WBECS welcomes and nurtures many small businesses, size is not the issue and growth is a key objective. There is no economic ceiling for certification, and the organization works closely with major corporations, many of whom are represented on its Board of Directors.

“Our main focus is connecting our businesses to the corporate world,” Mire elaborated. “Corporations have a mandate for increasing supplier diversity, which we help them meet. They look to our network to connect them with women-owned businesses.”

That pipeline feeds almost every sector imaginable, including oil and gas, technology, banks, retail, health care, automakers, and more.

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Of course, as Mire noted, “you can’t just walk in the door and do business with Exxon or Toyota. While they are trying to diversify, they are not lowering their standards.”

This is the context for WEBCS’s programs and certifications. Participants receive coaching on every aspect of running a full-scale business, including legal, financial, marketing, even cybersecurity. Specific cohorts receive additional information on specific industries. And all of it is done with an eye on qualifying for working with the corporate world.

“We do a lot of training on safety and the work environment,” Mire noted. “If you don’t have these kinds of processes in your business, corporations can’t do business with you.”

The WBECS certification is distinct from SBA or any local government certifications, though participants can sometime obtain the SBA certification via the organization’s programs. The certification process is demanding and exacting.

“The business has to be at least 51% woman-owned and managed,” explained Mire. “We definitely get beyond the figureheads. And it has to be a real business. We don’t certify ideas or businesses that are in the early stages of getting it together.”

Included in this is requiring documents such as articles of incorporation, business plans, financial statements, tax returns and the like. Mire noted that in some cases, seeking WBECS certification actually drives businesses to obtain these documents and generally up their game. The process also includes a site visit to confirm how the business has presented itself, though the pandemic has now moved most of these to being virtual.

In the end, though, the certification clearly demonstrates that a business is capable of doing quality work at the corporate level. “When they’re done, they understand the entire process, from RFP to contract,” Mire stated.

Remarkably, WBEC South accomplishes its work with a staff of four people for the five states. Along the way, it has certified more than one thousand businesses, with Louisiana and Tennessee being the top two states.

That said, certification is not always the objective, at least at first. WBECS offers other programs and resources that help earlier-stage businesses get their foot in the door, starting them down the path to higher capacity and eventual certification.

Some of this is in recognition of the fact that eighty percent of the currently certified businesses are owned by White women. “Obviously we need to diversify even within our own organization,” stated Mire, adding that new work in this area is being supported by a recent grant from the federal Minority Business Development Agency. “This is not a certification track, at least at first, but now they are in the network. They have access to the resources, the coaching.”

Mire also noted that certification is not the end of the track for many participants. Quite a few successful businesses that have gone through the WBECS program stay connected, and come back looking for their own suppliers. “Doing business with other women is the biggest source of opportunity we see across the country,” she said.

Ultimately, creating opportunity is the organization’s fundamental purpose. That they are successful is measured in everything from the number of certified businesses to the business cards on the table at WBECS board meetings – and the strength of the connections developed along the way.

“Everything we do is about the buyer-supplier connection,” Mire stated firmly. “It’s what makes us the pre-eminent resource for women-owned businesses.”

 

 

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