The CEO of the Women's Business Enterprise National Council, an organization that helps women-owned companies win those contracts, says it's not just corporations standing in women's way. These owners, even some of WBENC's members, need to be more aggressive.
"There are still many people who join our organization and say, now that I'm part of the network, that means so-and-so is just going to do business with me. That's just absolutely not so," Prince-Eason says.
WBENC was founded in 1997 to help women business owners get government and big corporate contracts. It was at a time when major corporations and the government didn't believe that women, like minorities, had a hard time getting such contracts, Prince-Eason says - whether because of a lack of relationships or because their companies were seen as too small or inexperienced. While there were groups and government programs to help minorities, women were on their own.
The organization's members include 12,000 women-owned businessses and nearly 300 corporations and government agencies. WBENC certifies businesses as being majority owned by women, or at least 51 percent, a credential big companies and the government are looking for. It provides training, mentoring and networking events, and also helps owners find companies to partner with on large contracts.
Women need to actively pursue networking and partnering if they want to work with big business and government, Prince-Eason says.
Prince-Eason sees progress in getting corporate and government contracting officers to work with women-owned businesses, especially in the last three to four years. But there's still much work to be done, she recently told The Associated Press. Here are excerpts from the interview, edited for brevity and clarity:
Q. Why should big corporations care about doing business with women-owned companies?
A. Women make the vast majority of decisions in consumer industries, and in industries you'd think of as male-dominated, like the automotive industry. Corporations have come to realize the people who buy from them are not only white males. They're recognizing in order to create better products they have to have the right input from the people who use them. The decision maker is changing. It's no longer the male of the household making decisions. That's what I believe has opened the door for corporations to be more interested in doing business with suppliers that are headed by women. The way in which we think and provide feedback and options will be different by virtue of the fact we're female.
Look at the history of buying cars. It used to be men were the only ones who could even get loans to buy cars. Now 85 percent of the decisions to buy a car are done by females. That's because more children are getting cars. When parents go out to look, it's the woman who cares about the safety of the child.
Q. How far are you from your goals for WBENC?
A. When WBENC formed, a handful of companies really "got it." Probably in the 1 percent range - and that's being gracious. Today in corporate America, I'd say only about 20 percent get it.
Q. Does the growing number of women executives in big corporations help women get corporate contracts?
A. Corporations are doing a very good job of advancing women but they're not represented enough in all the companies to make changes that would significantly help women suppliers. At our annual conference, about 40 percent to 50 percent of the individuals attending will be male. That's still who the chief procurement officers are, the buyers. I definitely see the advancement, but for all the corporations we deal with, it's still predominantly male.
Q. Do some women stand in their own way when it comes to getting contracts?
A. When you look at the overall characteristics of females when they approach males in the workplace, they can tend to take a subservient position. We tend to also be warmer, so approaching a meeting in a straightforward professional manner would feel kind of weird for some women. One of the things we try to promote is the recognition that you need to approach the marketplace on its terms. You want to be as authentic as you can be, but you also need to realize you have to go into every single engagement as a business transaction. There's a business case you need to make; you're providing a better value or service.
Q. How is the government doing on giving contracts to women-owned businesses?
A. I don't feel the government has done anywhere near as good a job as the private sector. Only recently have they had their specific contract set-asides (allotments) for women. The buyers, the contracting officers that are in the government, are back where our corporate buyers were at least 10 years ago, saying, I don't know how to find women-owned businesses, I don't know where they are, they're not big enough. We continuously watch the contracting scorecards for each department. We do our part in making the government aware of how many women-owned businesses are out there. And there's more interest in buying from women-owned businesses overall, but the individual buyer in the government, it still feels like a very old problem to me.