Boosting Women’s Businesses Worldwide

Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award winner helps female-led enterprises from around the globe sell more to corporations
Elizabeth A. Vazquez in India
Women are “not looking for charity,” Elizabeth A. Vazquez said. “They want to compete and win.”
February 28, 2018


Elizabeth A. Vazquez, F96, used to dream of rescuing women from poverty. But early in her career, she realized that women weren’t helplessly waiting for her aid. Many were already creating businesses to earn money for their families and communities.

Still, they faced challenges. While women do 70 percent of the world’s work, they earn only 10 percent of the income, according to UNICEF. And although women own one-third of all private businesses globally, they earn only 1 percent of the money that large corporations and governments spend on products and services, Vazquez says. Many women lack the capital, market knowledge, and business connections required to scale up their small businesses, enter high-profit industries, and land lucrative contracts.

“It’s not for lack of ability or potential,” Vazquez said. “It’s for lack of exposure and equal opportunity.”

To bridge that gap, Vazquez co-founded WEConnect International, a nonprofit that helps female business owners succeed in global markets and assists corporations that want to source more goods and services from women-owned firms. As CEO of the organization, she leads its strategy to identify, educate, register, and certify women’s business enterprises based outside of the United States and connect them with multinational corporate buyers.

For her work as a world leader in women’s economic empowerment and in global supply chain diversity and inclusion, Vazquez will receive the 2018 Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award (FWLA) on March 5 at 5 p.m. in ASEAN Auditorium at Tufts. The FWLA was established in 2014 by the Fletcher Board of Advisors and the school’s executive leadership to honor outstanding female graduates who are making a meaningful impact in the world through the private, public, and nongovernmental sectors.

Vazquez, a forty-seven-year-old native of Mexico who now lives near Washington, D.C., with her husband and daughter, created WEConnect International in 2009 in partnership with multinational companies. Its eighty or so corporate members, which include Walmart, P&G, IBM, and ExxonMobil Corporation, together spend more than $1 trillion on goods and services annually—but on average only 1 percent of that goes to women-owned businesses. These corporations want to increase their spending with women-owned enterprises in order to gain access to innovations, mirror their customer and employee base, increase competitive bidding, improve sales, and enhance their brand by diversifying their supply chain, Vazquez says.

Often corporate buyers will tell her, “Of course I want to buy more from women,” but say they don’t know how. “You have to make it super easy,” Vazquez said.

To that end, WEConnect International maintains a database of thousands of women-owned businesses based in one hundred countries, including businesses that are self-registered and, in twenty-four countries, those that are certified to be at least 51 percent owned, managed, and controlled by one or more women. WEConnect International also organizes conferences where buyers and sellers can discuss products and services they want to purchase or provide, and offers training to help female business owners expand their companies, bid for contracts, and prepare to be suppliers to large buyers.

The organization is making an impact, Vazquez said. “We’re definitely moving the needle.”

She points to a few of the group’s recent successes: a Turkish company that makes fruit and nut bars won a contract with Marriott International; a Brazilian branding firm landed a deal with Dell; a British business was selected to provide headsets and other services to remote workers for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. More large corporations have committed to increase their spending with women-owned businesses, including ten corporations that last year each pledged to spend $100 million more with women’s businesses annually, for a total of $1 billion in new spending.

“That is real money—multimillion-dollar contracts,” Vazquez said. And the benefits go beyond the business owners to their communities, as the women create more jobs and invest their profits in their families and neighborhoods.

Although Vazquez isn’t rescuing women like she once imagined, it turns out she is helping them help themselves out of poverty. “They’re not looking for charity,” she said. “They want to compete and win.”

Heather Stephenson can be reached at  

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