When Myra Sable tried to sell her gourmet condiments to American grocery chains, she encountered a problem common among female entrepreneurs who want large U.S. corporations as customers. No, she was not discriminated against because she is a woman. Rather, she couldn’t prove that her Toronto-based firm, Sable & Rosenfeld, wasn’t run and managed by a man.
“These companies have a certain allotment of funds which have to be directed towards minority groups,” says Sable, “and if we [can’t prove we’re] one of them, we’re not going to get the advantage. There’s a lot of opportunity if you have a certificate of woman ownership.”
Providing that certification is the goal of WEConnect Canada, a Toronto-based not-for-profit organization launched in March with the support of several big businesses, including BMO, Wal-Mart and Pfizer. And as more Canadian corporations factor supplier diversity into their purchasing decisions, a piece of paper that officially declares that a business is woman-owned and woman-run could become a valuable differentiator in the dogfight for corporate contracts.
WEConnect Canada is modelled after the U.S. Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), whose certification programs, educational seminars and trade shows connect female business owners with procurement officers who are actively seeking to cultivate the diversity of their supplier base. And make no mistake: women’s business enterprise (WBE) certification matters in the U.S., where more than 700 U.S. companies and government agencies demand it before buying from acompany as part of their supplier-diversity initiatives.
To earn WBE certification through WEConnect Canada, an entrepreneur must prove that she is a Canadian citizen or a landed immigrant, and that her business is at least 51% woman-owned, controlled and managed. Applicants must submit a non-refundable application fee of $750, client references, documentation of ownership, articles of incorporation (if applicable) and financial statements, which help WEConnect ensure an applicant’s business is a going concern that’s able to deliver its product or service. Finally, a site visit tests an applicant’s claims. While the WEConnect certification doesn’t require an applicant’s business to exceed a certain size, WBEs should be “scaleable enough¦to be able to respond to an RFP from large corporations,” says Betty Wood, WEConnect’s head of qualification and programs. “This is really for businesses that want to grow and are looking for opportunities.”
That statement applies not only to WBEs but also to the corporate members of WEConnect, who have exclusive access to the WEConnect database of WBEs. “A more diverse and inclusive supplier network creates value and innovation,” says Cathy Pin, vice president of commercial banking at BMO, explaining her company’s membership. Until more Canadian corporations feel that way, WBE certification will at least give Canada’s female entrepreneurs a better chance of success in the U.S..