Developing Women in Business

As president of the Women’s Business Enterprise Council for the Pennsylvania, Delaware and south New Jersey region, Geri Swift has dedicated her career to developing female entrepreneurs and women in business. The organization provides women in business with skill-building opportunities and marketplace access to major corporations and government agencies. Swift is also the founding president of the Women’s Business Development Center, which aims to help female business owners gain economic independence through entrepreneurship. For her work in this field, the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council awarded Swift the William J. Alcorn Award, for her leadership contributions to the women in business mission. Recently she spoke with Diversity Executive magazine. Here are edited excerpts:

What are some challenges women face in business?
While women’s businesses have grown substantially in both size and sophistication in the years since I founded the Women’s Business Development Center, access to the corporate and government marketplaces is still key to business development.

Since our organization’s founding, we have thrown open the doors for women’s businesses to the corporate decision-makers who can purchase their goods and services, and guide them to other areas of growth within their organizations. Our corporate members are passionately committed to enabling women’s business growth. They are forging many new opportunities for women’s business enterprises in their companies and showcasing their success internally and to the larger business community. These can range from supplier diversity events where women business owners can meet new contacts at a company, to awards ceremonies honoring women’s business enterprises as value-added suppliers.

Another key issue that women’s businesses need to address is adequate capacity. It is important for women’s businesses to attain the scale and size they need to service the needs of major, often multinational corporations. Sometimes this can take the form of strategic alliances or joint ventures with other women’s business enterprises.

How can companies help develop their female employees?
Our corporations know that diversity is a 360-degree initiative. To relate to their customers, corporations are aware that their employees, as well as their suppliers, should reflect the diversity of the communities they reach.

That is why we see excellent practices among our corporate members to cultivate female talent. This can range from senior-level mentoring of high-potential female executives to the engagement of their emerging leaders in employee resource groups. These are networks that may be centered around women, or other internal communities among LGBT, African-American, Hispanic, veterans or other groups of employees.

These corporations’ senior executives lead internal programs to fully develop their female employees. These programs challenge women with new opportunities, and consistently obtain their feedback. Keeping an open line of communication is key to developing a strong bench of executive women.

What would be your advice to a young female business professional?
First of all, do the absolute best job you can do. You won’t go anywhere unless you excel. Secondly, make yourself visible by volunteering in your employee network or in a professional woman’s organization. You can hone your skills and raise your profile at the same time. Raise your hand for the stretch assignment; and if you are asked to take on a new area or responsibility, don’t be afraid — just do it!

This will hopefully bring you to the third step, which is being noticed by a sponsor. This is not your mentor, who advises you through the ups and downs of your career. This is a senior executive who learns about you through your good work and visibility. He or she can be influential in suggesting you for your next promotion or job opportunity.

Why should businesses look toward hiring more female employees? What unique qualities do they bring to the table in a business setting?
Among the many women business owners I have worked with over the years, I would say that women are strong listeners, communicators and collaborative leaders. They care about motivating and keeping their colleagues and staff. In today’s flexible workplace, these skills are essential for building and leading successful teams.

Jessica DuBois-Maahs is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.