Connection Means Growth: Black Women In Business Hosts Its First Annual Conference and Honors Luncheon
By Sharifa Felix and Sharon Mullen
Connection Means Growth was the theme of the first Black Women in Business (BWIB) Annual Conference and Honors Luncheon. Sponsored by PNC Bank, nearly 100 women representing various professions and industry sectors descended on PNC Arena in Raleigh for a powerful, informative, and energizing conference.
Following the conference welcome, attendees engaged in workshops centered on business growth and leadership development facilitated by proven industry leaders. Andrea Harris, founder of and current fellow at the NC Institute for Minority Economic Development (also known as The Institute), spoke truth to power in her presentation of “The State of Black Women Owned Business and Policies That Affect Us.” While The Institute has championed some great victories and progress in its 30 years of existence, there is still work to be done. Her workshop was an eye-opening, straight-talk presentation on the data trends and the current policies impeding minority business growth.
Harris specifically highlighted the personal net worth cap (currently at $1.32 million, formerly $750,000) as a barrier that prevents many minority businesses from qualifying as a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) for federal level contracts. She also reported that the Institute was working on re-adding Minority Business Enterprises (MBE) as a classification to the Federal Form 294 which requires large corporations with government contracts to report how much and with whom they spend their money. The removal of MBE’s from Form 294 correlated with a notable drop in business with minority vendors and suppliers. Additionally, The Institute is also working on deterring the practice of imposing extended payment terms in which companies pay their vendors net 60, net 90, even 120 days, forcing their vendors to carry the cost of services and severely disrupting their cash flow.
Dr. Janice Smith led a session on Executive Presence which outlined how to become a woman of influence. She reminded attendees that women often go unnoticed and are not taught how to be influencers. In order to push past this dynamic, she advised that women need to begin tackling the voice inside their own heads and start overcoming this learned behavior. She asked, “What is your self-talk when you look in the mirror? What do you say to yourself that you would not let anyone else say to you?” With these two questions she opened the doorway to a multitude of lessons women need to adapt and overcome the conditioned thoughts holding them back from becoming the leaders they are striving to be. Dr. Smith reminded her listeners how important it is to form relationships with others, even in the professional arena. More importantly, if you are a leader, she stressed that you have to use your influence and skills to actually build up your direct reports and turn them into kings and queens. If you do not do that then you are not considered to be a very good leader. Women often forget this very important lesson and shy away from forming partnerships, especially with men, in the workplace. They let their self-talk convince them that just because they are the only woman in the group that no one will listen to them. Dr. Smith explained through her own personal story that women do not have to always convince the entire group that they are worthy to be partnered with, but take time to form a relationship with just one person. If it is done correctly, that allegiance will turn into advocacy, and suddenly women will be invited to speak, to participate, and to lead in business initiatives. It is a very simple solution as long as women are willing to release that negative self-talk and step out of their comfort zone.
In another session, BWIB founder Ingrid Jones led a participant-driven leadership conversation. Jones sparked a candid discussion by sharing the cynicism she initially encountered when conveying the vision and purpose she had for BWIB as a place for professional women to connect and develop. The conversation evolved to explore the topics of leadership in the workplace, career advancement challenges, and managing the growing millennial workforce.
Most of the women in the audience were entrepreneurs looking for solid advice on how to connect and grow their respective businesses, and Olalah Njenga, CEO of the YellowWood Group, and a Braintrust Contributor® for Forbes Small Business, delivered. Njenga gave a high-energy, straightforward presentation on Growth Strategies and Planning that demonstrated how to make sure your business is going in the right direction.
Njenga first identified and defined the Business Life Cycle as being composed of Seed, Start-Up, Growth, Established, Expansion, Maturity, and Exit. She offered practical applications for each level in the cycle and listed the signs that show which stage of the cycle your business is in. According to Njenga, the Growth stage of the cycle can be the most difficult. It is during this stage where the business owner attempts to grow the customer base, where they tend to invest more money for this growth, and yet success and profits are the most unpredictable. She pointed out that most small businesses believe this is the stage their business is supposed to be in but it is not. That designation belongs to the Expansion level, where not only the base is growing but its impact is being felt in the industry, competitive threats are more emphasized and the owner starts being able to readily recognize bright and blind spots of the competition. “Expansion is where hope meets the balance sheet,” she says. “It’s at this stage you ask yourself if you were starting another new company how many of your current employees would you take with you?” She went on to say that it is during this stage where the most personnel changes are made and rightly so, because in order to get to the next stage of Maturity, you have to only carry with you those who will help lift the business to that level. She also emphasized that the Exit stage can be the most confusing unless you realize as a business owner that it is okay to build a business to success and then sell it. The sale of the company can truly be the reward for having excellent systems, processes and people in place. Then you can use that windfall to start up another business.
The conference also featured dynamic, small group executive group coaching sessions where attendees were able to receive some one-on-one coaching. These were facilitated by women in fields of business coaching, mental health, business development, human resources, marketing and branding and executive leadership.
The highlight of the morning was the luncheon celebrating 30 women featured in Who’s Who in Black Raleigh-Durham, for their work in their respective professions and for furthering BWIB’s mission. The feature keynote address was delivered by Marie Johns, former Verizon CEO and former Deputy Administrator for the Small Business Administration (SBA). Johns opened her address by celebrating black women as the fastest growing entrepreneurial demographic in the United States. Johns cited the consistent dependability of the black woman during hard times and the historical figures that pioneered Black entrepreneurship, including Clara Brown, a former slave that opened and grew a successful laundry and real estate business in Colorado during the late 1850’s, Maggie Walker, founder of St. Luke’s Penny Savings Bank in 1903 and the first female bank president of any race, and Madam C.J. Walker, the first black female self-made millionaire, whose consultative business model became the framework for current female driven businesses like Mary Kay and Avon.
Johns made a direct call to action to harness and leverage the $1.1 trillion spending power that the black community possesses by increasing financial literacy at every socioeconomic level of our community. “We need to stop earning just to spend,” she said. She further punctuated her point by saying, “There will be no rescue squad roaring into our communities to fix our issues. They are not coming.” She gave attendees marching orders to preach entrepreneurship as fervently as we preach the gospel, to get real about financial literacy by talking about it more with each other and the next generation, and to connect with each other for growth and strength. “We need to fix and grow our community. We have a responsibility to our beloved broader community to do these things,” she said. She closed to a standing ovation by re-emphasizing that entrepreneurs can change lives by building communities.
For the list of the 2015 BWIB Conference honorees please click here.
We asked BWIB founder Ingrid Jones what she wants everyone to know about BWIB and she responded: “Black Women in Business is a community… designed to provide a place for entrepreneurs and professional women to have conversations about business and career, as it pertains to them: Black women– in an encouraging, understanding and safe place. We are for women who are serious about growing their businesses, being influential and strong leaders in their companies/nonprofit organizations, and who believe in the importance of community among Black women.”