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Here’s What Every Female Startup Founder Needs To Know About Being A Certified Woman-Owned Business


Female founder leading team

“I never dreamed about success. I worked for it.” – Estée Lauder

It’s an exciting time to be a female entrepreneur. Today, more than 11 million U.S. firms are now owned by women. 

But these numbers only tell part of the story. 

Women-owned firms are still in the minority, and female entrepreneurs face a number of challenges that are often difficult to quantify.

Women in business know how alienating it can be to walk into a crowded seminar or conference and count the number of women there on one hand. 

But at the same time, there’s a massive advantage to being a woman at a tech conference—there’s hardly ever a line at the women’s restroom but the tables are turned for the men’s line.

That’s one reason the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) is so invaluable. If you’re a woman in business and haven’t heard of it, you should explore the opportunity that this organization offers. 

The WBENC is the largest certifier of woman-owned businesses in the U.S., and an excellent resource for female entrepreneurs. Each year, the WBENC hosts one national conference and multiple regional conferences, featuring innovative educational programming, speakers, mentoring sessions, and networking opportunities. 

Each attending business, whether certified or not, should develop their Capability Statement. This document shares your firm’s capability in a two-page document. Click here for more details.

 Your WBENC certification also provides you with your Women-Owned Small Business certification, without having to go through a second, but important application process. 

To be certified as a Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE), your business must be at least 51% owned, controlled, operated and managed by women. My AI-matching technology company, focused on the HR space, ThisWay, is a certified WBE—and achieving this certification has opened a world of opportunity for our company. Becoming certified by the WBENC is also a great way to meet other founders and business leaders, and their guidance can help you take your company to the next level. 

That said, there are lots of misconceptions about WBENC, the WBE certification, and what it really takes to be a woman in business today. 

Here’s what you need to know:

Not every woman-owned business is a small company. 

Lots of businesses get certified by the WBENC because they want to work with Fortune 500 companies. 

And there are definitely plenty of opportunities to build lasting relationships with some of the largest companies in the world. 

For example, the vast majority of major companies have what’s called a “Supplier Diversity department.” This means they’re actively looking for opportunities to engage with women and businesses so that they can bring them in under contract as part of their sourcing for any variety of projects—anything from buying chairs to buying technology or trucking services. 

But I think there’s a misconception that women-owned businesses, also referred to as WBE (pronounced “we-be”) are necessarily small. Last year at a WBENC corporate event, I sat next to a minority-owned business that does over 10 billion in revenue per year. I would not have met this valuable partner if it had not been for Coca-Cola’s CIO inviting both of us to a shared meeting at their headquarters in Atlanta.  This connection was entirely due to our participation with WBENC.

It’s important to understand just how powerful relationships with your fellow WBEs can be. 

That said, it’s also harder to meet WBE leaders because you have to actively seek them out as many do not have a booth at the conferences. 

But things are changing. This year, my company made it a priority to attend at least 4 WBENC events with our WBENC Regional Partner Organization (RPO) the Women’s Business Council-Southwest. I also made it a priority to exhibit at the WBENC National conference, and I’m seeing other similar, fast-growing WBEs do the same. 

Beyond our commitment to attend more events, we also contribute to scholarships, give feedback for the young women entrepreneurs who pitch at the annual conference and proactively make connections for other WBE’s. Essentially paying it forward.

We’re all there to help each other and I’ve learned that as with most things, you get back what you invest into the relationship.

WBEs are a community that can help you take your startup to the next level. 

One of the best things about the WBENC conference is that it provides a community of like-minded people. 

WBENC events are attended by people of all ethnicities and genders but they share two common traits:

  1. They are active advocates of supplier diversity, and the term diversity extends to women-owned, minority-owned, veteran-owned, etc.
  2. They all act and dress professionally. Take a look at photos from this year’s annual conference here.

The second point here might sound like I’m trying to be humorous, but I’m not. Considering the number of tech events I attend each year, I see a host of different types of clothes worn to these events. Typically the company employees wear t-shirts, hoodies, blue jeans and sneakers.  

We even joke about how you can spot an investor a mile away because they are wearing something other than the outfit I just described.

But the key theme of the event is that everyone respects women-owned businesses and prioritizes helping them get ahead. And the organization puts a structure in place that helps foster this.

In particular, it provides: 

  • Access to large corporations and federal agencies
  • Training and educational programs
  • Networking opportunities
  • Access to leads for bids and proposals
  • Mentorship programs
  • Workshops
  • Pitch Competitions

But in order to truly reap these benefits, you need to obtain certification.

That’s a fairly straight-forward process, but it’s also a lot of work. An important part of the process is having a very clear capability statement, which is just one piece of paper—front and back—that’s very specific about your company and it’s capabilities. It identifies your value proposition and things you would normally do. But it also identifies keywords and North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes in order for them to match up the opportunities within your company to what you do. The Small Business Administration (SBA) regularly maintains the list of NAICS that can qualify for the women’s contracting program.

In our first year of certification we had trouble adequately identifying our NAICS business codes. 

The challenge was that the NAICS codes are outdated—there’s no NAICS code for AI, artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc. But we were able to survive the challenges. 

The next year, we did a survey of the companies we wanted to talk to and asked them what NAICS codes they would use to find us. I was surprised at the answers but modifying our NAICS codes and increasing our interaction with WBENC over the last 12 months has created millions of dollars in annual contract value.

At WBENC events we all wear color-coded ribbons on our badges at the conference and when established companies can see you’re a first-timer, they take time to introduce themselves and to ask if there’s anything they can help you with. 

This culture is specifically designed for more established companies to help out the newbies—forming a community where everyone benefits. It’s worked for us and I’m always looking for opportunities to help others that are new as well.

Don’t expect to grab a Fortune 500 company’s attention right away. 

A lot of women founders think they will be certified and immediately start talking to enterprise companies, but it actually takes a lot of time. 

To be certified, you have to show you’re up to par with major companies. In other words, you need sufficient capital, professionalism, and a focused strategy. 

Big corporations are super busy, so when you are ready—keep your pitch short and concise. Ask them what cadence they prefer for follow-ups and be respectful of both “not yets” and “no.”

Remember, WBEs are just as polished and competitive as the rest of the business world. Don’t expect the bar to be lower because we’re WBEs. In many ways, I think we should seek to raise the bar that others are scored by. 

Patience and persistence is the shortest path to success.

Remember: WBE certification is just the starting line. 

Now you have to seek guidance, build relationships, and step up your game to be competitive with other industry players, not just other WBE’s.

Being a WBE is not a value proposition of your business. Your product and service still need to be competitive, with a strong value proposition that resonates with WBENC members. 

I get that nobody likes asking for help. And when you’re a minority in the cutthroat business world, it’s especially intimidating. I’m an introvert, so I know how it feels. I don’t particularly like these events, but when I’m there, I make a point to get contacts and ask specific questions to get what I need. 

It’s challenging but worth it. Don’t let fear get the best of you. Asking for help is the best way to grow. 

And don’t forget to follow up. Hundreds of people reach out to these companies every day. They’re flooded by emails and calls and meetings, so you have to work to stand out and be persistent. 

If you can catch the attention of a prominent WBE, that’s a major step forward. 

Major corporations all know each other and can be a valuable source of contacts. And as a WBE, you’re more likely to get your foot in the door. Women founders feel a sense of duty to pay it forward and help other WBEs. 

Because when one of us succeeds, we all do. 

Angela Hood is the Founder/CEO of ThisWay Global, an international, VC backed HR tech company that was incubated at ideaSpace, University of Cambridge, UK, with new offices now in the US. ThisWay's team is comprised of experienced entrepreneurs, global PhDs in the areas of machine learning and AI, as well as talented Millenials from across the globe. Hood is a recognized thought leader on the topics of diversity and ROI, and AI in the new world of work.

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