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It's Her Time: 19th Annual Conference of WPO

My standard spiel starts with the line: I have the best job in the world. And I do really feel that way – because I get to work on issues that are deeply important to me, on behalf of women who are deeply important to me every single day. Yesterday, though I had a lot of competition and the line fell flat the two times I tried to use it. That line just doesn’t work when you’re at the Women Presidents’ Organization Annual Conference, and you’re surrounded by the best of the best – the most accomplished women entrepreneurs and business leaders, and the one and only Dr. Marsha Firestone.

Marsha Firestone founded WPO in 1997 to be a peer learning organization for women business leaders. Marsha saw the gap – she knew from her previous experience as Vice President of Women Inc. and as Vice President of Training and Counseling at the American Woman’s Economic Development Corporation that women business leaders encounter unique challenges, and that they deserve a supportive and empowering resource that could provide the knowledge and skills to excel and enable their continued business growth. With a  membership of more than 1800 women who are all at the multi-million dollar level, WPO is the ultimate affiliation for successful women business leaders. The goals have been and always will be to accelerate business growth, enhance competitiveness, and promote economic security through confidential and collaborative peer-learning groups.

I’m writing from Baltimore, MD where the 19th Annual Conference of Women Presidents’ Organization is currently taking place. And I’m going to be brief, so I can partake in the full festivities of day 2, but I wanted to take a few minutes to share some of the highlights from yesterday.

I moderated a panel about government contracting – which generally tends to be a wonky and nuanced conversation with a lot of acronyms. Not our conversation though. Thanks to panelists Gina Merritt, Sonja Hines, and Patti Winstanley, the session was one of the most informative, enlightening, and useful sessions I have ever witnessed on government contracting. All of the panelists shared their individual stories, and more importantly, their lessons learned and advice for their peers who are just starting to think about expanding to the federal marketplace. They talked about the importance of networking and building relationships – specifically with the contracting officers and the program managers too. They encouraged their peers to team and collaborate – start as a sub for a prime and leverage those opportunities for the experience and the relationships; or work with others to strengthen your past performance, diversify your capabilities, and grow. They shared that persistence is key, and learning the lingo is essential. Special shout out to Sonja Hines; she created a super helpful slide titled “starting, sustaining, and scaling” with action items and tips for doing business with the government.

The Council – thanks to Marsha – then had a special opportunity to host our own workshop. We called it: “It’s Her Time – Developing a 21st Century Ecosystem to Support Female Entrepreneurs.” We wanted to talk about the specific barriers to growth and the needs of growth-oriented entrepreneurs, and there’s no better place for that conversation than with members of WPO who are in the process of growing and scaling their businesses. The goals of our session were to:

  •          Discover the unique barriers that growth-oriented women entrepreneurs face
  •          Understand what growth-oriented women entrepreneurs need to succeed
  •          Learn appropriate intervention points and recommendations for future action

It’s that last one that is most important!

We were lucky to have three of our Council Members join us for the opening panel. Thank you, thank you to Kari Warberg Block, Kimberly Blackwell, and Pam Prince-Eason who took time out of their crazy schedules and away from their booming business demands to join us for a conversation. Kim and Kari shared their stories, speaking about their motivations for getting started, their visions for growth – and how that has changed over time, and some of their growing pains and challenges. They both took huge leaps of faith when they sought to grow, but … they were passionate about business; they believed in themselves and their businesses; and they dared to dream BIG! Pam talked about the corporations, specifically their commitment to diversity and the opportunity that women have to leverage them as real business developers, and partners. Pam was such a valuable addition to this conversation because of her extensive background as business owner, corporate procurement manager, and now president of the leading third party certifier for WBEs. She is such a champion!

For the second half of the session, we moderated eight different roundtables – which was such a great opportunity for our Council Members and staff to hear directly from these amazing women entrepreneurs. We asked them: How has the entrepreneurial ecosystem and its support of growth-oriented women entrepreneurs evolved in recent years? It’s fair to say the consensus in the room was this: It’s her time! There’s never been a better time to be a woman entrepreneur. We also asked: What are the opportunities for improving the entrepreneurial ecosystems? What do growth oriented women entrepreneurs need to succeed? And we learned a lot …

About what’s working.

Several women noted the importance of certification and the increase in entrepreneurship programming and education happening at the college and university level. People also were grateful for the increase in storytelling – it normalizes the idea of women as business owners and leaders to the public; it gives women the opportunity to share / platform to market themselves and their businesses; and it serves as inspiration to the aspiring women entrepreneurs. On that note, we can’t wait for the recognition of the “50 Fastest-Growing Women-Owned Businesses” tonight. Congrats to the winners!

About what could be working better.

We heard that the SBA loan process is worth the wait, but it’s a long wait and an onerous process! Same with government contracting. It can be a great way to grow, but it’s a difficult and long road, and not recommended for all. It was also noted that there is great innovation happening in the capital space, which is great, but not sufficient. And corporations are spending millions, and in some cases billions of dollars, with women-owned businesses, but those supplier diversity programs could improve and become more worthwhile for both the woman business owner and the corporation.

And about what’s not working.

The good news is that women are growing, but the bad news is that they are growing out of their NAICS codes, and thus growing out of small business supports too. If the ultimate goal is to help women scale, to create jobs, and to yield greater economic impact, then we should really help women grow their businesses. There needs to be continued investment in the form of programming, resources, capital and more at that critical mid-tier level.

I hope that the participants found the conversations as constructive as we did. Our team has copious notes from the roundtables and we look forward to bringing the insights and recommendations back to the full Council for further discussion and review.

I have to say thank you again to Marsha for the opportunity. Many many thanks to Kim, Kari, and Pam for joining us – for sharing and then moderating. I love our #squad.

Now, I’m off to the first keynote today – Judy Smith! And then back to work … because there’s a lot of work to do!

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