It is partly through the work of women like Elizabeth Vazquez that the conversation about women in the international development community has changed and that women’s economic empowerment and entrepreneurship have been embraced as solutions to key challenges.
Vazquez, the CEO and co-founder of WEConnect International, bridges the gap between corporations and nongovernmental organizations in her work to help incorporate more women-owned businesses into the global supply chain. Her passion about the issue is evident when she speaks, and for her, it’s certainly not new.
She developed an early interest in women’s entrepreneurship as she watched her mother have “Mexico’s first garage sale” to raise enough money to bring Vazquez and her sister to the United States. Growing up with strong female figureheads in her family helped her understand how entrepreneurial women, especially single mothers, have to be to take care of their families.
“Ever since then I’ve had a deep curiosity of the fundamentals of power and how does power work [and] what are the currencies of power,” Vazquez said.
Working with women entrepreneurs was not what she set out to do. She happened into the work after graduating with a master’s degree from the Fletcher School at Tufts University when she helped organize one of the first conferences on global entrepreneurship hosted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
It was through meeting the women at that event that her perspective changed, she said.
“I came out of studying development economics where we talked a lot about women as victims,” Vazquez said. “I was blown away by how powerful they [were].”
She has been hooked on working to help women entrepreneurs ever since.
The more she worked in the field, however, the more she found that women were being trained and given access to resources but little was being done beyond that to help them gain access to markets.
The opportunity to address those challenges came in the form of WEConnect, a corporate-led nonprofit that grew out of an interest among leading companies to improve their own supply chain diversity.
Building off positive experiences in incorporating more women into their U.S. supply chains, corporations were looking to expand the practice to their global purchasing decisions but were struggling to find the women-owned businesses.
That was happening in large part because many of the women-owned businesses weren’t even going to sourcing events because they didn’t know about them or the opportunities to supply large corporations.
“It doesn’t even occur to them, and how would it?” Vazquez said. “If you’ve never seen a person who looks like you own a business or grow a business how would it even occur to you that that’s something you could or should do?”
So WEConnect — which registers women-owned businesses, helps inform them about existing opportunities and connects them with multinational corporations — was designed to address those challenges.
WEConnect quickly realized that it didn’t need to provide access to financing or skills training because there were already great organizations doing that work. It turned, instead, to partnership as a way of connecting women with opportunities and expanding their reach.
Its work started in the United Kingdom, where it would learn the first of many lessons along the way. A failed first attempt at starting a program there meant starting over but also led to some key takeaways about the importance of legal agreements and clear expectations.
Bridging the gap
Vazquez sits in an interesting crossroads between corporations, NGOs and governments. This has meant that, especially in the early years, there has been a lot of work trying to get the various communities to understand one another better and more effectively work together.
“When we first started I think there was a lot of ignorance and fear of the corporate community,” Vazquez said. “[The NGO community] thought of it as big business and that they weren’t serious about working with women business owners.”
Through a process of proving intentions and full transparency about processes for engagement and about expectations, things began to change. In many countries, the concept of global supplier diversity and inclusion was new and WEConnect had to create forums or platforms to bring together stakeholders to have an open conversation.
On all sides, changes have been made. Corporations have had to re-examine some of their systems, especially those related to vendor registration, which posed challenges for businesses outside of the United States. They have realized that they have to change and be flexible to adapt and find the best suppliers to succeed in business, Vazquez said.
Likewise, the NGO community has had to make some changes, especially in shifting the mindset of viewing businesses merely as donors.
“I think it just didn’t occur to the NGO community that the real power isn’t in fact, in my opinion, in the foundations. It’s in core business, it’s how they do business and how they spend their money that is actually a vote for the world they want and they care about,” she said.
The growth phase
In just about four years, WEConnect has expanded to 15 countries, including India, China, Indonesia, South Africa and several Latin American countries, and that pace of expansion has meant a steep learning curve.
“Nothing about this is easy. Large business generally has a hard time doing business with small business,” Vazquez said, adding that most women-owned businesses tend to be smaller.
Going through a process of learning what works and making sure that programs in each country are successful have proven more important that just adding to the number of countries where they operate, she said.
But Vazquez remains frustrated by the slow pace of expansion, which is limited by a lack of resources, she said. The WEConnect database has women from more than 70 countries registered, many of which the network cannot serve directly.
Vazquez sees such a clear return on investment and the large potential impact that the programs make, which makes it that much harder when countries are regularly reaching out and asking for training, she said.
She has dealt with those frustrations by focusing on the high points — the women she has met who are growing businesses, hiring employees and helping their communities. She also is actively working to harness the power of partnerships to help amplify the organization’s work.
At the heart of the WEConnect model is the idea that partnerships are the key to successful, sustainable programs that best incorporate women into global supply chains.
It is not corporations, or governments or NGOs that are individually the solution, Vazquez said.
“What we’ve learned is that it takes everyone working together and doing what they’re best at,” she said, adding that it’s not about trying to get one type of partner to be like another, but rather learning from one another. “I’ve seen some really powerful things happen when they worked together than any one of those groups could not possibly do alone.”
Vazquez, who has helped broker many partnerships in her role, has learned a lot about their challenges and what it takes for them to succeed. Clearly defining roles, responsibilities, expectations, accountability, finances and legal contracts are essential from the outset if a partnership is to work, she said.
Finding and developing partnerships that will be mutually beneficial and have clarity of intentions will lead to greater success. The key is the “recognition of how do we create shared value together, how do we think beyond just profits and how do we think beyond just social impact. If there is just social impact and no other kinds of rewards and returns it is really hard for everyone to continue to support it,” Vazquez said.
There will undoubtedly continue to be challenges and lessons, including personal ones, but Vazquez sees the platform that women’s economic empowerment has and says that the opportunity to advance the conversation must be seized.
She has traveled a lot and grappled with the personal challenges of leaving her family, including her 7-year-old daughter, behind — just as many executives in similar positions. Vazquez has brought her daughter along for several trips, however. And it is through her daughter’s questions and perspectives that she learns new lessons and sees the potential for the future.
The conversation will continue to change but “women’s issues” have evolved from just obtaining rights to truly having a seat at the table and recognition, backed up by data, that they represent a source for development solutions, she said.
Vazquez has some criticisms of the development community’s focus on helping women start businesses with little profit potential and believes that more should be encouraged to look at the $72 trillion economy and identify what products the market wants and what businesses have growth potential.
About $7 billion now goes to women-owned businesses, which is only about 1 percent of the total economy. Even just doubling that number to 2 percent would mean dramatically more money. And money is available; it’s just about finding and connecting women-owned businesses to the corporations that want to buy from them at a greater pace, she said.
Building up women entrepreneurs gives women assets, and power, which allows them to have more control over their lives and escape difficult situations. That’s one of the reasons Vazquez is so passionate about her work, she said.
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As a Devex Impact associate editor, Adva leads coverage of the intersection of business and international development. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, she enjoys exploring the role the private sector and private capital play in development. Previously, she has worked as a reporter at newspapers in both the U.S. and South Africa. Most recently, she has been ghostwriting a memoir for a former child slave and NGO founder in Ghana.