When I was a child, “Man, I Feel Like a Woman” by Shania Twain on the stereo as my mother cleaned up our home and got ready for work. Still, 22 years later, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of empowerment when I hear the loud, twangy guitar while Shania exclaims “Let’s go girls!”
As I walked the floor of the WBENC National Conference and Business Fair for the first time, I could hear Shania singing in my head as I passed by the many women living their dreams and empowering others to do the same.
Nearly twenty years ago in Arlington, Texas, the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) first established the event that would come to be known as the WBENC National Conference & Business Fair, and the rest is history. In 2019, over 4,700+ attendees and 325+ exhibitors filled the Baltimore Convention Center to foster relationships, learn, create new opportunities, and to celebrate women-owned businesses and entrepreneurs.
I was captivated by the unique presence many of these fellow women-owned businesses and entrepreneurs had on the floor, so naturally, I stopped to chat. These are their incredible stories I just had to share.
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At just the age of three, Joan Bess found her love for art and in adulthood, became a seasoned professional in paper arts, founding several businesses and teaching mixed media workshops. Bess’s friend, Lou Ann Gleason, was an experienced marketer with over 20 years of experience with brands such as Proctor & Gamble. Together, the dynamic duo combines their skills to bring their clientele a unique product experience.
One afternoon, Gleason received a call from Bess, excitedly asking her to come over because she had something interesting to show her. Gleason arrived at her home, and Bess presented her with a slab of gelatin and papers with colorful, painted designs. She had found that when you paint a design on gelatin, you could perfectly transfer the design to paper without smudges. After spending the afternoon experimenting, the duo shook hands and Gelli Arts came to be.
Gelli Arts now offers 14 shapes and sizes of the gelatin molds, stencils, and cones that are sold all over the world. Unlike regular store-bought gelatin, Gelli Arts found a way to make their product non-perishable and easy to clean and store. Their product appeals to a female audience including artists, teachers, and mothers, which is what brought them to WBENC. Gelli Arts inspires their customers to find their inner artist, one gelatin slab at a time.
Gleason, co-founder and CEO described her WBENC experience best: “What I love about exhibiting at WBENC is seeing so many strong and courageous women. I find it so empowering. In my space, I’m nearby businesses with younger women in their booths, and it gives us an opportunity to share information. We keep in touch and I’m able to act as a mentor. WBENC is a super friendly and inviting environment.”
In 2016, Roxanne Royce left her home in Colorado to move to New Jersey to care for her father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Royce regularly took her father to his doctor’s appointments and brought small gifts to thank the office staff for their care. As an experienced Nurse Practitioner, she knew from experience, that a beverage or a snack, goes a long way. In both instances in which she attempted to bring the medical staff their favorite drinks, she spilled before she got to her car and in the medical center parking lot. The flimsy cardboard tray did not support the beverages. Frustrated, she wanted a better solution.
After extensive research, Royce designed an insulated bag that would fit exactly around beverage trays and maintain their cool or hot temperatures. Further R&D lead to reusable, eco-friendly 3D printed trays that are much more stable than their cardboard counterparts. The BevBag was born.Currently, Royce sells her product on Amazon and through her website and donates five percent of her profits to Alzheimer’s research. Her next step is to become a WBENC-certified business so that she can sell BevBags in well-known retail stores such as HomeGoods.
As she walked the show floor, she moved many with her story and felt moved herself as she listened to empowering speakers that weren’t attending WBENC just to sell their product – they were supporting and helping others through their journey, just as Royce intends to do.
As organizations work to reduce the amount of plastic and other waste, EcoPlum is doing their part to change our world for the better.
Since 2008, sustainability has been at the core of the EcoPlum business. “Our big overall focus is encouraging companies to be more conscious of their buying. If they want to put their brand on a product, it should show their values, beliefs, and business practices,” said Marcia Robbins, Senior VP of Marketing and Strategy. One of the difficulties of creating promotional products that are environmentally friendly is finding suppliers with those same values in mind. EcoPlum seeks to create innovative, recycled, and compostable or reusable products that won’t just end up in a landfill or the ocean.About 18 months ago, EcoPlum became WBENC-certified. While it isn’t the first time that an EcoPlum team member has attended the WBENC conference, 2019 is the first time EcoPlum came to the WBENC conference to exhibit their products, bring team members, and serve on the host committee. “As a small business predominantly staffed by women, we thought the certification, network, and community of other women-owned businesses was a great asset to have,” said Robbins.
Gia Machlin, President and CEO said, “We’re excited to be here at WBENC. Being a part of this community and among the exceptional women that are not only committed to building their own businesses but mentoring and helping facilitate meaningful connections is a wonderful thing. It’s not about competing – it's all about connections.”
WestWind Computer Products
Westwind took a unique approach to drawing visitors into their booth. Their colorful logo of a wolf and giveaway items such as branded dog bandanas and wolf stress ball toys drew me to their space. We began talking with Troy Legere, Director of Marketing, curiously asking about the business’s branding and mission.
21 years ago, Westwind opened and to this day, is still a woman-owned business. They're a Value-Added Reseller (VAR) and provide IT products and services to the Federal Government, with extensive expertise in emerging technology, lifecycle management, and integrated solutions. Westwind is also dedicated to philanthropic efforts, especially regarding animal rights. This shows in the logo, which is inspired by one of the current CEO’s more memorable pets, a wolf hybrid!
In 2018, Westwind was awarded their WBENC certification. Through the process, they learned more about the organization and as a woman-owned business, wanted to show their support and create new connections. “It’s been great to meet people in different industries. It brings us interesting leads. We’re very happy and looking forward to attending next year,’ said Shannon Lee Turner, Sr. Business Development Manager.“To see this many women and people embracing the way their markets are changing, and bringing women’s brains to everyday business is empowering,” said Turner. Legere added, “I love and am amazed seeing so many diverse women and cultures represented at WBENC. It makes me happy.”
Exhibit Concepts has been WBENC certified since 2010. We take great pride in this certification, as we have a strong focus and initiative to partner with and support supplier-diverse companies.
“We attend and exhibit at WBENC’s National Conference and Business Fair to support our Supplier Diversity clients as they continue to diversify their supply chain. And to be present and supportive of our fellow women-owned businesses. Everywhere you turn, during sessions, in the expo hall, over lunch, you see and hear and meet amazing entrepreneurs growing their businesses. It is so rewarding to be a part of that,” said Ellen Kaminski, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Exhibit Concepts.
As for me, I didn’t just leave WBENC with a ton of goodies from all the booths I visited as I wandered around, trying to get a feel for the event; I left with a sense of empowerment and a desire to follow my dreams instead of the straight, mundane path that sometimes women are expected to walk on and never stray. My entire life, my grandmother has told me I have a book floating around in my head, waiting to be written and enjoyed by the rest of the world. Because we all have a story to tell.
The women I met have inspired me to pursue that dream. As this world depends on them for their innovative products, maybe the world depends on that book floating around in my head.
To anyone out there wanting to start a business, to advance in their career, or to fulfill their artistic needs, attend WBENC and listen to these stories from other women who made it happen for themselves. They’re worth your support, and they’ll dish it back to you. You are in charge of your life and your happiness. Chase it.