Women's organizations helps business owners find customers

Many people who belong to business organizations that regularly hold networking sessions tend to approach those events with low expectations and tepid enthusiasm, but for members of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, such gatherings have a powerful draw: “The ‘speed dating’ is fantastic,” said Jennifer Jeansonne, CEO of Eagle Consulting LLC in Belle Chasse.

Members of the business council often use that social matchmaking term to describe the networking process that has become a hallmark of their meetings.

“Three times a year we do formal matchmaking,” said Pamela Prince-Eason, CEO of the council. “Corporations line up on one side of the table and the women business owners are on the other, and they get 15 minutes to discuss opportunities to work together before they move on to the next person.”

While the process may seem haphazard, the council goes to considerable lengths to boost the chances that at least some of the meet-ups turn into lasting relationships. In fact, the organization’s primary reason for existence is to make sure that the suppliers and vendors it introduces to corporations are qualified and have the capacity to meet potential buyers’ needs.

In order to join the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, a woman must verify that she owns at least 51 percent of her company, either on her own or in partnership with other female owners. She must also be able to prove that she’s the chief decision maker and can’t be overruled by a board of directors.

The certification process includes a site visit by council representatives who examine minutes of company meetings and evaluate the prospective member’s impact on her business.

The process ensures businesses are owned by women and “not set up as a shell corporation,” said Prince-Eason, whose national organization met in New Orleans last month and whose regional organization will meet there April 10-11.

As a result of the certification process, by the time a woman business owner sits down at a matchmaking event with potential buyers of her products or services, the council has already provided that buyer with a profile of the woman’s company, her experience and her involvement in the business.

The council, which today has some 13,000 members, took shape about 17 years ago at the hands of a half-dozen women’s business groups around the country.

They decided they could be more effective in getting the attention of larger corporations if they teamed up under a national umbrella. Throughout the year, WBENC and its 14 regional partner organizations provide opportunities for interactions among more than 650 member corporations, government agencies and thousands of certified WBEs at business building events and other forums.

In the years since its inception, some challenges that women once faced in cracking into a male-dominated business world have grown easier, particularly as more corporations have committed to expanding diversity in both their employment ranks and among their suppliers.

The rise of federal programs aimed at increasing opportunities for “disadvantaged business enterprises” also have helped to level the playing field. But some women say hurdles remain.

“You can’t even get an audience with (some potential buyers) unless you’re introduced in a cigar bar,” said Fonda Lindfors New, CEO of Quaternary Resource Investigations LLC in Baton Rouge, an environmental remediation and construction and oilfield, federal and petrochemical services business.

Operating in a sector long dominated by men, New said her 28-year-old company has prospered by rolling with the punches and drawing support from such groups as the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council. The company she founded on her own now employs nearly 100 people and has $11 million in annual sales. New predicts revenue will nearly double during the next two years.

She said her company’s “great reputation” keeps clients coming through the door. But it frustrates her that, even though most of the top executives in her company are women, at times she has to let male managers — including her husband who is president of the firm — handle introductory meetings with prospective clients because she knows certain clients prefer to meet with a man.

“It’s still a good ol’ boy world. I just play the game better than I used to,” she said.

New and other members of the organization say the validation that comes with being certified by the council has been valuable to them in growing their businesses. But in the end, they must close their own deals and work to get repeat business.

Jeansonne, whose drilling personnel and project management company was already doing business with Chevron Corp. in the Gulf of Mexico before she became a member of the council in 2010, said a matchmaking event two years ago opened doors for her to other divisions of the oil giant.

“It ended with us signing a contract, and we expanded our operations from just the Gulf of Mexico to their land business as well,” she said.

Eagle Consulting has on staff engineers and wellsite consultants, with expertise in land, inland water and offshore drilling; completion; workover; plug and abandon; and producing-well intervention projects.

Jeansonne is one of 14 women representing different parts of the country who were honored by the council as regional “stars” during a meeting last month in New Orleans, which drew close to 2,000 people.

Janet Brewster, CEO of Brewster Procurement Group Inc., in Lafayette, said her membership in the council has helped her 15-year-old company diversify its client base both geographically and across different industries.

“I think it’s very important to a lot of corporations that we are certified as viable women-owned enterprises,” she said.

But Brewster added that having the certification doesn’t mean that business growth will come easily. “We’ve got these networking opportunities, but it’s up to us to take advantage of them,” she said.