It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: She runs network of women-owned businesses across more than 100 countries

Elizabeth Vazquez runs a network that links women-owned businesses with global buyers

For as long as she can remember, Elizabeth Vazquez has wanted to help women. As co-founder and chief executive of WEConnect International, she is doing just that.

Set up a decade ago, the global network connects women-owned businesses to buyers around the world.

The only corporate-led initiative of its kind, it identifies, registers, educates and certifies women's business enterprises outside of the United States and connects them with multinational corporate buyers. WEConnect's reach spans more than 100 countries.

The 48-year-old says: "How women spend money is actually different. They tend to spend more of it on their families, on their employees and on their communities. So it has a multiplier effect."

Her passion for helping women is understandable, given her background. She was born in Mexico, the older of two daughters of a Mexican lawyer father and an Irish-American mother.

Her parents' marriage was tumultuous.

One day, after her father had left for work, her mother held a yard sale. Using the money raised to buy train tickets, she secretly took her two children - then aged three and one - across the border into Arizona that night.

 
 

"She decided the relationship was not a healthy one for her kids. What she did was dangerous but she decided it was more dangerous to stay," says Ms Vazquez.

"I think it was my first experience seeing why it was important for a woman to have her own money."

They moved in with her maternal grandmother in Arizona, and lived on public assistance for a while. During this time, her mother worked hard to conquer her alcohol and drug addictions.

The next couple of decades were tough but character-forming.

"We never had enough money to pay for the basics so we moved around a lot. Mum also put herself through college so that she could get a good job. With her degree, she ended up in mental health therapy and was able to help people with mental health challenges, addictions of various sorts and was really successful," she says.

How her mother got out of a bad situation and created a better life for herself and her children inspired her to do what she does.

Her circumstances forced Ms Vazquez to grow up quickly.

"My mother raised us to be independent at a very young age. She didn't think she was going to live very long so she raised us to be survivors and to care about the people around us and the communities we live in," she says, adding that she is not close to her father even though he tried to make contact a couple of times.

Their peripatetic lifestyle - they moved often - also meant she learnt to adapt to new situations and people quickly.

A self-starter, she was competitive and "over-achieving in a lot of ways". Because money was hard to come by, she worked hard to get scholarships to put herself through school and college.

For a long time, she harboured dreams of becoming a lawyer so that she could effect change through the legal system.

"I wanted to take cases to the Supreme Court and change laws, and make them better for women, children and people who generally don't have a lot of power," she says with a laugh.

Then realisation struck that changing the legal system takes a long time and she ended up with a degree in political science from Arizona State University. However, two professors wrote recommendations for her to get a fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation for public policy and international relations.

She now has a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, where she studied economics and international negotiation. The programme exposed her to development economics.

"I started to understand the role of different members of the community who were not being tapped to utilise or contribute so that we could have inclusive growth," she says.

Brimming with enthusiasm and ideals, she wanted to work with Professor Muhammad Yunus, who founded the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, a microfinance outfit and community development bank which disburses small loans to the poor and disadvantaged.

 
 

But her aunt said she should look for a real job and set up an interview for her with the federal government instead. Through a series of events, including a hiring freeze, she ended up helping to set up the first OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) conference on Women's Entrepreneurship.

And, all of a sudden, she was exposed to women business owners, associations, chambers of commerce, finance technologies and best practices all over the world.

Asked if that seemed like a big job for someone with no trade experience, Ms Vazquez grins and nods her head vigorously.

"The problem is women typically always feel that way. They look at a job description and say: 'Well, I can do half of that but I can't do two or three of those things yet so I'm going to wait and not apply until I can.'

"But I was so excited about the potential of the job that I didn't care... Whoever hired me saw my resume, my background and decided I was good enough so they obviously saw something in me."

The job was inspiring in more ways than one.

"I was being exposed to these women business owners who didn't think of themselves as victims. They weren't waiting around for government grants, they weren't waiting around for training or loans. They were actively taking risks, hiring people, innovating and developing new solutions, products and services. And then I suddenly realised: 'That's what I want to do. I want to work with women who create products, services and solutions to the world's smallest to biggest challenges.'"

For the next 10 years, she worked on best practices to help women start companies.

Something then struck her.

"There was nothing out there connecting women who own businesses to market to actual buyers, or to market intelligence about what is it the real world buys. It's a very large global economy - the global GDP was nearly US$80 trillion (S$128 trillion) in 2017 - so there're lots of money out there but women are invisible in the supply chain."

Something else was happening while she was thinking about the lack of access to markets for businesswomen.

"Around this time, some of the world's biggest companies were getting together and saying: 'If it makes good business sense to buy from women in businesses here in the US and North America, why wouldn't we do this elsewhere? And they realised there was no global database of women suppliers."

She and the group talked about connecting the dots between them and the women who wanted to grow their companies. That was how WEConnect was conceived. Ms Vazquez was asked to do the legal incorporation and become its head honcho in 2009.

 
 

Her work was cut out for her: to work at buy-ins from local corporations across the globe.

Starting with a pilot in Britain and Canada, the non-profit organisation then moved to India, China, Latin America, Europe and parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

"The point of all of this is to work with local partners to find growth-oriented women and businesses that can register for free," she says, adding that to register, companies must be at least 51 per cent owned, managed and controlled by women.

"Now they can join a network of women business owners across 150 countries. Not only can these women-owned businesses do business with each other, which is really important for scale, they can also find suppliers and partners for joint ventures," she says.

WEConnect hires local representatives (more than 20 globally, including one in Singapore) to help match buyer and seller, work with local partners and governments and organise networking and learning opportunities.

Setting up and running such an ambitious initiative is not easy.

Among her challenges are dealing with various government regulatory requirements, understanding different markets and business practices and hiring trustworthy and competent local representatives.

"Every day is a new learning curve," she says. "Work in China can be challenging and India is constantly changing the rules and regulations for trade and how non-profits can work."

It can also be harrowing.

In Turkey - which is in political turmoil - she has had to dodge water cannons running from meeting to meeting.

Doing what she does has more than widened her perspectives. It has also humbled her.

"I used to say this was for growth-oriented, women-owned businesses, not for a woman who's selling tortillas at the corner. And I was wrong. At one of our events in Central America, a woman who makes tortillas met a woman who makes gluten-free flour. They decided to make a gluten-free flour tortilla that Walmart now sells. They are selling to one of the two largest companies in the world because they innovated."

"It was a good lesson for me not to assume the potential of what these women are capable of doing," she says.

She relates another encounter with women from Syria - where a civil war has been raging for the past eight years - who wanted to be connected.

"I was like: 'What are you talking about? You have bigger issues and serious challenges you're dealing with.' And they said: 'No, you don't understand. Because we don't have jobs, we need to sell our stuff. We need access to markets, we need people to buy things from us. We're not looking for charity but we do have to feed ourselves'."

She adds: "Again it reminds me not to assume things on behalf of others about their potential and what their needs are.

"Let them tell us what they want and need and how they can contribute and benefit."

Her work has made her a global leader in women economic empowerment. Among other bodies, she sits on the Walmart Global Women's Economic Empowerment Initiative's International Advisory Council, the Procter & Gamble Supplier Diversity Advisory Council and is also an adviser to the Clinton Global Initiative which seeks solutions to global problems.

She also served as a member of the UN Secretary-General's High-Level Panel on Women's Economic Empowerment from 2016 to 2017 with, among others, the heads of the United Nations, the World Bank and other world leaders.

Bubbly and articulate, the co-author of the book Buying For Impact: How To Buy From Women And Change Our World can reel off facts and figures as to why it makes good business sense to do business with women: they are not as corrupt, they are more "green" and they are big on transparency and sustainability.

Married to a banker turned businessman with whom she has an "entrepreneurial" 12-year-old daughter who makes and peddles slime, Ms Vazquez says she really loves her job.

"Not only do I get to be inspired by these women and businesses all over the world every day, but I also get to work with the biggest companies in the world. I get to work with governments that can, with the stroke of a pen, abolish decisions which can fundamentally affect a business's ability to grow.

"I get to work with the World Bank. I get to work with people who are making decisions every day that impact the lives of everyone else. I wouldn't trade the work I get to do today for anything."