This interview is part of a series on Trailblazing Women role models (Entrepreneurs and Leaders) from around the world and first appeared on Global Invest Her. You have to see what you can be.
"We all need to think bigger. The world has a lot of problems that need solutions. Every one of us has entrepreneurial ideas about things that could be made better and we often imagine a solution that doesn't really exist yet. When you get one of those ideas, you need to think to yourself, what would it mean to the world, if I took the risk to build a solution for that challenge?"
Elizabeth A. Vazquez, is a serial social entrepreneur and world leader in global supplier diversity and inclusion. As the CEO of WEConnect International, a global non-profit that helps women-owned businesses succeed in global markets, she is responsible for mission delivery and impact. The WEConnect International team supports a network of local representatives in 17 countries-Australia, Brazil, Chile, Canada, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, India, Indonesia, Israel, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, South Africa, Turkey and the UK. She is the co-author of the book, "Buying for Impact: How to Buy from Women and Change Our World." The book includes information on women business owners and ways to support and leverage their potential to create a more sustainable and inclusive global economy. WEConnect International recently won the 2015 Best of Washington Award in the Non-Profit Organization category by the Washington Award Program. Just two years after launching the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) commitment to advancing women-owned businesses in new markets, WEConnect International and Vital Voices have helped to facilitate and track more than US$3 Billion in new spend with women-owned businesses and the training of more than 40,000 women business owners based outside the U.S.
Who is your role model as an entrepreneur?
I have so many role models that it's hard to choose just one. I think we all learn from the good examples and challenges that others faced before us. I have learned many things from thousands of entrepreneurs, some of them small and unknown, others who are very well known.
"I'm inspired by entrepreneurs who take a risk and try to do something that no-one else has done, but they don't try to do it alone. They bring in partners and people that are sometimes smarter than themselves, to help them build something that can create solutions to critical challenges."
I like real, tangible solutions that are global in scope, that everyday people can understand, support and be a part of. The most successful entrepreneurs will engage entire communities in their vision and get real buy-in and support to move something forward.
What is your greatest achievement to date?
Without a doubt, my daughter is the most precious thing to me in the whole world. I am grateful to her and my husband, because I am able to work at a global level while also having a supportive family. It's not easy for families to support an entrepreneur, even more so for a social entrepreneur who travels a lot. My other greatest achievement is helping to create a coalition around women's economic empowerment and building a global platform that makes it easier for buyers to source from women entrepreneurs.
"WEConnect International is only 5 years old and we educate and certify women's business enterprises in 17 countries, and we also support women entrepreneurs more generally in over 80 countries."
We didn't do it alone-we have fantastic corporate members and passionate women business owners who share their successes with their communities. We have wonderful NGO and multilateral partners who can see how their work can also help support our vision and mission. For me, the quote from Hilary Clinton that 'it takes a village' is absolutely true.
What has been your biggest challenge as a Women Entrepreneur?
Like most women entrepreneurs, I would prefer to have experience before taking on a major challenge. With WEConnect International, there weren't a lot of organizational models we could follow outside of the United States, so we had to take a lot of risks and try new things knowing that some of it would fail. I had to become comfortable with success and failure. There is a lot riding on how to build a sustainable model, and as a woman entrepreneur I wanted to make sure that the time and resources invested would lead to impact and success. This is especially true for women entrepreneurs with family responsibilities because we do not want to put our families at risk.
Integrating my personal life and work life has been difficult and stressful, especially because of the travel. But it has ultimately been worth the sacrifices because of the impact we are making to get billions of dollars into the hands of women in a relatively short period of time. I think work life integration is a common challenge for both women and men entrepreneurs. However, most women manage at least two full time jobs-one paid and one unpaid!
What in your opinion, is the key to your success?
I definitely think that working well with Corporate leadership has been key to WEConnect International's success.
"This organization wouldn't be this successful if it were not for some of the biggest companies in the world coming together with the commitment to source more inclusively from women suppliers. My job was to build a team capable of leveraging this amazing corporate commitment."
It's not as if there are systems in place outside the United States for large organizations to capture how much of their spend is with women suppliers. It is a huge investment and does not happen overnight. For corporations to baseline how much of their spend is with women-owned businesses requires internal buy-in at senior executive and procurement staff levels, as well as procurement systems changes. The Corporates also have to figure out how to explain how their inclusive sourcing will be implemented and managed in each target market so that it is not seen as some 'American thing,' but rather a leadership opportunity to help grow local business and economies. Working as an effective translator between the private sector, the public sector and civil society has also been key to our success in this space.
If you could do one thing differently, what would that be?
Instead of trying to set up different legal entities in different countries in the beginning, we should have launched the global umbrella organization first. We wanted to market test a successful model from the United States in other markets and so we created a few different legal entities around that. What our corporate members really wanted however was one single global, centralized resource,that is connected, easy to access and easy to leverage-instead of individual country databases managed by different country organizations. The biggest lesson we learned in the first 2 years was about getting the global model right. Fortunately, we have been able to steer the organization in the right direction into a single, unified, global organization. Our members are most happy when we make it easy for them to buy from women inside the WEConnect International eNetwork.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I'd like to think that I am visionary, inclusive, and that I listen to other ideas and ways of doing this work. I like to brainstorm and see things on the ground. You can't do this type of work from behind your desk. You have to be out there in the markets, listening, observing. You have to take a lot of risks and try many new and different things. Knowing how to pivot when something is not working, make adjustments and move forward is key. It is always important to be transparent when you make a mistake, quickly recognize it, share those lessons learned, and try to avoid making that mistake in the future.
"As a leader, you need to be passionate about what you do and realize how lucky you are to do what you do every day-that can carry you through the harder days. The most important thing is to always remember your mission and who you are serving because you cannot be all things to all people."
I also have to constantly remember that not everyone will like what I do or how I do it and I have to be okay with that.
What would you say to others to encourage them to become entrepreneurs?
We all need to think bigger. The world has a lot of problems that need solutions. Every one of us has entrepreneurial ideas about things that could be made better and we often imagine a solution that doesn't really exist yet. When you get one of those ideas, you need to think to yourself, what would it mean to the world, if I took the risk to build a solution for that challenge? Women own very few of the world's assets and we are not going to get a lot of people out of poverty if women do not own more of the means of production. Entrepreneurship is not the solution for all women. However, for those who want to start their own business and create jobs for others, we all need to do everything we can to support their vision and support the hard work it takes to start and grow a business. We will all be better off if there are more solutions and more jobs.
What advice would you give your younger self?
The world is actually a very small place. When you are a child in the playground, you think that the world is the playground and you try to abide by the rules there. It's hard for you to imagine other rules outside of the playground. Then it turns out that it's all in context and to a certain degree, it's all made up! Just because some kids want things done a certain way, doesn't mean that everything has to be done that way. The rules of the road when you get out into the real world are very similar. We think we have various boundaries imposed on us. But the truth is that if we are willing to take risks and be creative (within the boundaries of the law) and try new things, the potential is limitless!
"There are so many things that need to be done in this world that can and must be done. We just have to visualize what that world would look like and be willing to be a part of that change process. Someone once said that you cannot be comfortable and be a change agent at the same time."
A lot of those barriers we think are out there, are actually only in our mind. We just have to think much bigger, be empowered, and as Gandhi said 'you must be the change you wish to see in the world.'
What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?
Over the next 5 years WEConnect International will be serving twice as many qualified buyers leveraging a much larger database of women's business enterprises. WEConnect International buyers and sellers will be actively engaged in the network and closing billions of dollars in business deals. And the businesses we work with will employ more people with quality jobs.
3 key words to describe yourself:
"Life really is short. We have to make the best of it and make sure we do everything we can to enjoy it and leave the world a better place than when we arrived."
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