When Brenda Duinkerken met with a Boston-based food broker to help increase sales of her gluten-free products such as cake, cookie and pizza dough mixes, she was asked if she was a certified women's business enterprise.
Duinkerken, who started Canadian-based Duinkerken Foods in 2003, was stumped. She had never heard of the term.
"Being from Canada, I didn't understand what certification was and started asking questions," she said.
A few phone calls later, she learned about WEConnect International, a corporate-led non-profit that acts as a type of matchmaker between women suppliers abroad and major U.S. companies.
"Our mission is to find women-owned business, develop their capacities to compete, certify that they are women-owned and introduce them to business opportunities with major corporations," Elizabeth A. Vazquez, CEO and co-founder of WEConnect International, told The Story Exchange.
While private certification services for women-owned firms based in the U.S. have existed since 1995 through organizations such the Women's Business Enterprise National Council, before WEConnect International, no organization was certifying foreign-based female suppliers.
Trend toward women-owned
The organization, founded in 2009, currently operates in 15 countries in the Americas, Asia, Australasia, Europe, and Africa.
Its corporate members, 50 in total, including well-know giants such as Walmart, Verizon and Pfizer, represent a total of over $700 billion in annual purchasing power.
Vazquez says corporations are beginning to see the benefits of supplier diversity and inclusion and are looking for women-owned businesses globally that can meet their needs.
"Corporations are starting to ask their prime suppliers, which are often the other very larger corporations in the world, to 'tell us how much of this contract is going to women-owned business or minority-owned business,'" she says.
The reason? Companies see that consumers increasingly prefer to buy from businesses that reflect their core values. And they're also looking to find cutting edge technologies and popular products that will help improve their bottom line.
"Diversifying our supply chain to include women and minority-owned businesses is not only the right thing to do, but it's good for business," says Adele Gulfo, President of Pfizer for Latin America.
Gulfo says in the U.S., where Pfizer's supplier diversity program is most advanced, the company spent over $500 million in 2012 on goods and services - such as printed materials, translation services and clinical trial support - coming from diverse suppliers. Women-owned firms, 1093 in total, accounted for about half that amount.
So far Pfizer, a founding member of WEConnect International, has identified 36 of its suppliers in Latin America as women-owned with Gulfo looking to establish more connections with female entrepreneurs in the region.
She adds that working with women-owned firms offers the opportunity for positive spillover effects in Latin America. "When women [there] are economically empowered, they become engines of growth for their communities and country."
Support and confidence
For Brenda Duinkerken the benefits of becoming certified came quickly after joining WEConnect International.
Within months, she had met buyers from Walmart who sampled her product and by 2011, her products were being sold on the retail giant's website. Duinkerken sales increased which in turn allowed her to purchase new equipment to grow her brand.
In October, her gluten-free products will hit the shelves in over 800 Walmart stores in the U.S.
Melanne Verveer, the former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues who currently heads up the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, believes that the trend toward sourcing from women-owned business will continue to grow because "it is a win-win proposition."
"Women's companies can grow their markets and the corporations can access quality services and products that meet their requirements," she told The Story Exchange.
Verveer believes that the work of WEConnect International offers potentially enormous benefits for women around the world by fulfilling a major need of women entrepreneurs: access to markets.
Duinkerken undoubtedly agrees. "Becoming certified through WEConnect International was definitely the best thing I could have done for my business. Otherwise, it would have taken me years to achieve what I have accomplished."