For 24 years Ernst and Young, a global company with 144,000 employees,which specializes in assurance, tax, transactions and advisory services, has held a competition for Entrepreneur of the Year. But three years ago as part of its commitment to the advancement of women, the company initiated a competition exclusively for women-founded businesses. According to Maria Pinelli, the EY Americas Director, Strategic Growth Markets, "although women are starting businesses at twice the rate of men, they start with much less capital and they don't grow nearly as large. Our program is designed to help them scale to become market leaders."
The criteria for the application process, which usually begins in the Spring, are straightforward:
The applicant must be a founder or a founding partner with at least a 51 percent ownership of a company less than 10 years old with sales of at least $1 mil within the last two years. Their online applications are reviewed by a panel of five judges. The 2010 panel included Howard Brodsky, CEO of CCA Global Partners, Jeri Harrman, Managing Partner of Avante Mezzanine Partners, Pamela O'Rourke, CEO of ICON Information Consultants, Vicki Raport, CEO of Quantum Retail Technology (a 2009 EY competition winner!) and Rob Scott, VP and Worldwide General Manager for Hewlett-Packard.
Besides a two-day training program at NY headquarters, the winners receive an all -expense- paid trip as participants in the 5-day annual EY Strategic Growth Forum in Palm Springs, California at which the competition winners are honored. This year's forum included 1700 leaders of successful high-growth companies, such as Richard Branson of Virgin, Bill Ford of Ford Motor Company, along with investors and advisors, who share growth strategies and discuss opportunities and challenges. EY actively promotes individual contact between the Winning Women and relevant business leaders, from funders to potential customers.
No doubt the Palm Springs event worked its magic on the 2010 winners. One winner said she felt like "she had won the lottery." Another CEO, Lili Hall, who runs KNOCK, Inc, a $10 million-Minneapolis-based advertising and design agency specializing in retail and consumer goods, says "I returned to my office like a wide-eyed kid who had had this amazing experience. Specifically I learned I had focused too much in the business and not enough on the business. Of course we have a strategic plan, but rather than putting it aside when a client calls, I now intend to implement it and treat ourselves like clients with goals and timelines for achieving them."
Another winner, Darlene Panzitta, President/Founder of DSP Clinical Research, which oversees late stage drug trials for small to mid-sized companies, started her company on a $50,000 bank loan and has taken it within five years to $20 million in revenues. She describes the forum as a week of meetings "with people I would never have access to including potential funders." She also began to realize that the time has come for her to pull back from day to day operations and install professional management. "I love science and I love risk. But I don't love management, so with professional managers in place I can focus on bringing the business to the next level."
CEO Lisa Bair, who after a long career in pharma founded The Hobart Group about 8 years ago, which develops communications strategies and creative campaigns for pharmaceutical and biotech clients, and has doubled her sales every year. For her the Palm Springs gathering was a "game changing event because of the exposure I got to companies that operate on a much larger scale." Her take from the event is to "seek more consultation through considering establishing an advisory board or a board of directors"
One of the 2009 winners, Carole Borden, CEO of CB Transportation, a trucking and distribution management company, was attending the session for the second time, an invitation open to all previous competition winners. She views her business as"before the Palm Springs forum and after. I used to think of incremental growth. Now I view our potential differently. Why not aim for sales of $500 mil, rather than $50 million! And wining the competition turned out not to be a one shot deal either because you become part of a network you can continue to access. EY continues to sow the seeds for many potential client relationships."
For one of the five 2008 winners, Kathleen Utecht, the Palm Springs event provided her with an unexpected exit! The company she had run, in which she had started as an angel investor, manufactured a toy which sold surprisingly well. "But though I proved I could do it, she observes, "I wasn't interested in running a manufacturing company, so I started looking for venture capital. Because EY knew where I was headed, they put me in touch with a woman venture capitalist in Palm Springs who actually wound up buying a small stake in my company; eventually her firm bought a majority position." Currently, Kathleen is back in school at Wharton to add an MBA to her resume with a clear goal this time for a position in a medium sized private equity firm "because I'm a deal maker."
My next blog will detail the story of one amazingly inspiring Winning Woman.
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