Posted on Mon, Jun. 12, 2006
Shoving aside an oversized spool of electrical cable and casually grabbing a pair of wire cutters to pose for a picture, there's little doubt that Mercedes LaPorta feels at ease in her sprawling warehouse in Medley, surrounded by more than $3 million in electrical supplies.
But there was a time it wasn't so comfortable being a woman in a man's world. In the early days of her company, she would send male employees to bid on contracts and act as the public face of Mercedes Electric Supply -- the company she started with her husband 27 years ago.
''I stayed in the background,'' said LaPorta, the company's president. ``I would have been at a disadvantage at that point -- but we're talking years ago when there were very few women in construction.''
Now, there are more than 14,500 women-owned construction firms in Florida alone. Nationwide businesses run and owned by women are booming. By some accounts, women are majority owners of 48 percent of the nation's privately-held companies.
But even as gender barriers topple, obstacles remain. Of the billions of dollars that Fortune 1,000 companies spend on outside suppliers, only 4 percent goes to women-owned enterprises, according to the Center for Women's Business Research.
Trying to bridge this gap is one reason entrepreneurs like LaPorta are turning to organizations such as the Women's Business Enterprise National Council, or WBENC.
Founded in 1997, WBENC represents almost 7,000 women-owned business members and works with more than 700 major corporations to encourage business ties.
From June 26-29 the organization is hoping to broker such supplier deals during its annual conference, which will be held at the Miami Beach Convention Center this year. The three-day event is expected to draw more than 300 corporate sponsors -- including Office Depot, PepsiCo and Bank of America -- and about 2,500 participants.
The conference is unique because of the caliber of corporate executives that will be present, said Nancy Allen, the president and CEO of The Women's Business Development Center in Pinecrest -- a WBENC affiliate. ''It's very exclusive and very powerful in that there is the opportunity to walk out of there with contracts,'' she said.
One of the keys to WBENC's success with corporate America has been its certification process. It's one of the few organizations that carries out on-site visits to verify that its women members truly own and operate their companies -- and are not merely fronts for male partners.
WBENC certification costs $300 and can take up to 90 days to complete but is recognized by a wide swath of corporations and government bodies, Allen said. In Florida more than 300 companies have been certified, and most buck popular conceptions about women-owned businesses.
''Many people think of them as being very small,'' said Allen. ``There's that image of a mom at home doing something part-time.''
Yet 60 percent of the Florida members have revenue between $3 million and $5 million and most have 20 to 25 employees.
Office Depot Director of Vendor Development Robert McCormis-Ballou said the company favors WBENC certification because it's a way to protect against liability. When the company makes claims about doing businesses with women, it wants to make sure it can stand behind them, he said.
Of the roughly $10 billion in products Office Depot sold in the United States and Canada in 2005, about $430 million came from minority and women suppliers, he said.
''If you aren't going to do business with corporations, you may not find the value in WBENC certification,'' he said. ``But if you want to do business with Corporate America, WBENC certification is the license plate to get you on that interstate.''
While WBENC holds sway in the corporate world, most local governments have their own certification process.
Both Miami-Dade and Broward counties try to channel 10 percent of all contracts through sheltered market programs. In Miami-Dade that program includes certified small businesses but not women- and minority-owned businesses. (The county was sued in federal court and forced to make all economic development programs race and gender neutral).
Broward County has a free certification process for women-owned businesses that takes about two hours to complete, said Edgar Tapia, the county's manager of small business development. Despite the ease of the process, fewer than 300 companies have gone through certification, he said.
One reason for the low numbers may be lingering fears that it's too complicated to do business with the government.
''You have to do more paperwork than you would [to do business] with a private company, but at the end of the day, it's worth it,'' he said. ``It might take an hour or two hours of your time to become certified, but you never know, you might get a contract.''
One of WBENC's main initiatives is to gain local government acceptance of its certification process, which it maintains is among the most rigorous.
That would be a step in the right direction, said LaPorta, who has been certified through several local governments.
Now LaPorta doesn't need to stay in the background anymore. Her company has annual revenue of more than $25 million, and the completion of major projects -- providing electrical supplies for AmericanAirlines Arena and airport terminals -- has made her a well-known player in the industry. She sees certification as a good business strategy. Since joining WBENC, LaPorta said, she's made good contacts with multinationals such as PepsiCo and UPS.
''I think a larger portion of our business in the future will be working with corporations,'' she said. And certification, LaPorta added, ``gives us a foot in the door.''
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