Raised by a single mom with two kids, Elizabeth Vazquez understands better than most how vital it is for women to take control of their own destinies. She also has the perspective to see the global economic benefits of women successfully running their own businesses.
Vazquez is the President, CEO and co-founder of WEConnect International, a corporate-led nonprofit that helps women business owners succeed globally. WEConnect began four years ago as an outgrowth of WBENC (the U.S.–focused Women's Business Enterprise National Council).
Initial corporate supporters included Accenture, AT&T, Ernst & Young, HP, IBM, Pacific Gas & Electric, Verizon Communications and Walmart. Added to that roster are companies including The Coca-Cola Company, Cummins, Johnson & Johnson, Marriott International, Microsoft and WellPoint. Vazquez says the corporate-member network now represents more than $700 billion in annual purchasing power.
"The corporations actually created WEConnect because they saw such a need for women-owned suppliers. A lot of what we have been doing in the last three years especially is educating key stakeholders: governments that are supportive in creating an enabling environment, more corporations, NGOs working with our target market," she says.
WEConnect's main objectives have been outreach and on-the-ground events in targeted markets to engage with women business owners and train them to reach their full potential. "Now that we have this basic infrastructure, we are really poised for growth," she says.
That infrastructure includes certification standards for women-owned businesses in the United Kingdom, Canada, India, China, Mexico, Turkey, Peru, Chile, Costa Rica and Jamaica. Countries next on the list include Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Nigeria and South Africa.
Some of the Western European countries, such as France, have been the hardest to reach because of their history of discouraging recognition of difference. "They don't want to single out people as different, but the fact is that women in Europe are not getting the same access to business as men," Vazquez notes.
WEConnect has been involved in a series of global events to connect corporations and governments with women suppliers. In November, the Women Vendors Exhibition and Forum, held in Mexico City in cooperation with Mexico's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ProMéxico and the International Trade Centre, yielded more than 60 letters of intent on business worth more than $6 million in sales in a 48-hour period.
Right Leader to Jumpstart Organization
Vazquez's background helps her understand the global issues facing women business owners and corporations. Born in Mexico (her father was Mexican and her mother a white American), she moved to Arizona as a child with her mother and sister.
"My mom put herself through school. [She became a mental-health therapist.] She was my role model," Vazquez says.
Vazquez was pre-law when she realized, in her last year of college, that the legal system "is a very long process" and she wanted faster results. Two of her professors thought she could be an international Woodrow Wilson Fellow, so she was accepted into The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where she studied development economics and international negotiations.
"It was an amazing two years with people from all over the world in the program representing their governments. My first week I was in a constitutional-law class with a guy who wrote the constitution of his country," she recalls.
At a conference on women entrepreneurs, she "went from thinking of women as victims to seeing them as really powerful players. It was a totally different way of looking at international relations and economic development relative to women."
Her current emphasis is on expanding WEConnect to new markets, growing the database of women, and training and mentoring thousands of women-owned businesses. This means a lot of travel, and her 6-year-old daughter is often on board. "She has been to more countries than she is years old. She's a flexible kid who has given me a lot of support," says Vazquez, who also credits her husband, a banker, with sharing the childcare duties.