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"A Very Feminine, Very Driven Business Incubator": The WBDC

Lili Hall's business is a WBE.

The founder, president, and CEO of KNOCK, inc, a Minneapolis-based branding, design and advertising firm specializing in retail and consumer products, sought and obtained those letters—they stand for Women's Business Enterprise Certification—from a remarkable Chicago- and Twin-Cities-based organization that has been helping women entrepreneurs for nearly thirty years: the Women's Business Development Center.

Founded by Chicagoans Hedy Ratner and Carol Dougal in 1986, the WBDC is the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive women’s business assistance center in the United States It has a budget of $3.45 million, a staff of 30 (“We don’t discriminate,” Hedy Ratner says. “There is one man on staff.”) and locations in Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul. One of its key services is the WBE Certification, which can often open the door to contracts with governments and corporations.

“When you start a customer relationship through your status as a WBE, you are still working with the same company, but you’re entering through a different door,” says Hall. (The 2010 move of Hall’s firm to Glenwood Avenue was profiled in The Line; see the article on the firm's international reach in this issue.)

“As a WBE, you’re entering into a relationship with a potential customer through their diverse-supplier group," Hall explains. There is usually a person in that group who will shepherd you to the right contact. You might end up in the very same place you would have through a more traditional route--for example, in the marketing department--but it’s a different route to get there. And, of course, there is no guarantee you’ll get any business; you still have to prove your value,” she says.

To earn WBE Certification, businesses must prove that they are at least 51 percent owned by a woman or women, provide proof of contribution of capital and/or expertise and management of the business, evidence of the ability to perform in the area of specialty or expertise without the reliance on either the finances or resources of a non-female owned firm, and U.S. citizenship or resident alien status. The process includes the submission of documentation as well as in-person and on-site interviews.

Hall’s firm completed the WBDC certification process several years ago, and she says that she’s beginning to see the “traction” that it, and her active involvement in WBDC, has created. While certification is a paperwork-intensive and time-consuming process--Hall reports that “it’s probably the equivalent of a one-inch binder’s worth of stuff you have to collect, plus in-person visits and an interview,” she says that the effort has been worth it for her business.

Women's Progress

 When Ratner and Dougal founded the nonprofit, every fashion-forward woman in business was wearing linebacker-size shoulder pads, floppy bow ties and earrings the size of salad plates.

In the 27 years since, fashions have changed, and the role of women in business has become less of a struggle, and more of a given. While women’s full participation at the highest levels of business can still cause heated debate in some circles (consider the reaction to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, for example), the acceptance of women as colleagues, peers, and leaders has been relatively rapid and certainly transformative.

“We started our organization because we firmly believed that the true empowerment of women was only going to happen with economic independence,” Ratner says. “We saw a sticky floor for low-income and minority women, and a glass ceiling for women who had reached management levels.”

An Immigrant Business Paradigm

Their model for change was that of the twentieth-century American immigrant. “Because they didn’t have the language, education or connections, immigrants often couldn’t get jobs, so they started businesses. I’m a first-generation American--my Eastern European parents owned a grocery store. They were entrepreneurs before that word existed.

“For the WBDC, we took that same paradigm and applied it to women, thinking that if they could develop successful, sustainable businesses, they would become economically independent, fully empowered and they would change the world.” And, Ratner concludes, “We were right.”

Given the paradigm on which the organization was started, Ratner notes that she’s especially pleased that the current Program Director of the Minnesota satellite office, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, is Natasha Fedorova, a Russian immigrant. “It all comes around,” says Ratner. In a nine-state region that includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri, more than 1,400 WBEs are certified each year.

National Conference in Twin Cities

The Twin Cities will be hosting the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) 14th annual National Conference and Business Fair June 25 – 27 at the Minneapolis Convention Center, drawing an anticipated 3,000 participants. The keynote speaker at the conference will be Lidia Bastianich, the chef and cookbook author, and the trade fair will include more than 100 corporations and government agencies.

Sharon Avent, President and CEO, The Smead Manufacturing Company, Inc., a manufacturer and distributor of paper filing supplies and organizational products, is the Regional Host Committee Chair for the event. Avent, who is the third generation of her family to run the privately held business, reports that it has been woman-owned for more than 50 years.

“I’m thrilled that the National Conference is going to be here,” she says. She recalls that for many years after she started working at Smead, she was often the only woman in the room in any business setting. “I have witnessed how things have changed, and it’s so impressive to me. I have three granddaughters, and I want to do things now that will support their success in the future,” she says.

Feminine and Driven

The Twin Cities, many agree, has a unique culture that is supportive of creating and sustaining WBEs, with a concentration of Fortune 100 companies and a community ethos that tends toward supporting social justice and the greater good. And the WBDC has enjoyed support from some extraordinary women, too.

“Many of the area’s up-and-coming women in corporate business were instrumental getting the WBDC Minnesota satellite office started,” says Beth Kittelson, Assistant Vice President, Office of Minority and Women Inclusion, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. “This local group has great mix of businesses and lots of smart, interesting women who are involved. It’s altogether a very feminine and very driven business incubator,” she concludes.

Julie Kendrick's last article for The Line was a portrait of STEM educator Shefali Mehta, in our April 17, 2013 issue.

Photos of Lili Hall, Natasha Fedorova, and Beth Kittelson by Bill Kelley; photo of Hedy Ratner and Carol Dougal courtesy WBDC.

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