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    One of the fastest growing business sectors in the U.S. is Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs), reflecting rapidly growing diversity in the U.S. The U.S. Census reports that there are 9.9 million women-owned firms as of 2012 (the most recent data) and 7.9 million minority-owned firms, together accounting for 64.5 percent of all firms. MWBEs are fueling the growth of small businesses, the backbone of economic growth, as innovative entrepreneurs bring new products and services to market.

    Despite the large numbers, MWBEs continue to face many barriers to business startup and growth including limited access to capital and lack of knowledge of government and corporate procurement processes. One of the best ways to overcome these challenges is to cultivate business relationships and build networks. Following are tips for connecting with people who can help MWBEs overcome the barriers and grow their businesses.

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    Join MWBE Advocacy Organizations

    Forming business relationships is easier today than ever before because of the excellent associations and advocacy groups available. Joining these groups and making use of their resources enables small business owners to make contact with fellow entrepreneurs, corporate sourcing and procurement professionals, and advisors who have a wealth of experience. These organizations include:

    • Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC)
    • National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC)
    • National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC)
    • Black Business Association (BBA)
    • Asian Pacific American Chamber of Commerce (APACC)
    • United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC)
    • Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA)

    Some of the organizations certify businesses as women or minority owned, like WBENC and NMSDC. Getting MWBE certification is important for any business that wants to land contracts with government agencies or corporations. Most of the organizations also have regional, state, and/or chapters. The list provided is just a short example of the high quality groups available for developing business networks. There are hundreds of trade associations available too that are focused on MWBEs, such as National Black Accountants, a nonprofit membership association.

    Utilize Training and Support Resources

    Taking advantage of training and support resources only makes sense. The resources connect entrepreneurs with experts in business planning, serve as a source of new contacts for startup and growing a business, and can open new business opportunities with corporations.

    The corporate workshops are usually geared towards suppliers who are interested in joining the corporate supply chain. It can be difficult to connect with corporate procurement professionals, and these workshops offer an ideal way to meet the right people. Corporate sponsored workshops are also offered through the MWBE organizations listed earlier. For example, the Women’s Center for Entrepreneurship Corporation (WCEC) offers a quarterly speaker’s forum at which corporate experts share their expertise on topics like “doing business with large corporations.”

    Government workshops are found by visiting the appropriate government website or by calling the agency directly. New York is one of the leading states offering training opportunities for MWBEs. The New York Division of Minority and Women’s Business Development offers a series of training and networking events throughout the year that are called MWBE Opportunities EXPOs. The expos connect MWBEs to New York State agencies and technical assistance providers. These event are free.

    Attend Expositions, Conferences, and Trade Shows

    Attending the B2B trade shows is an excellent way to meet corporate and government personnel, and other small business entrepreneurs who may present joint venture opportunities. Most trade shows also offer workshops and speaker events. Some of the best (some say not to be missed) and most established trade shows and conferences include:

    This is just a small example of the excellent conferences held throughout the year that offer networking opportunities. If the 2016 conference was missed, it is time to begin marking calendars for 2017 events.

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    Social Media

    No discussion on networking is complete without mentioning social media. Online networking is important for attracting new customers. Most people understand the importance of social media to business marketing and brand building. However, MWBEs should also utilize social media to get the attention of corporate buyers by making themselves the experts with solutions. Large corporations operate social media command centers where they monitor what people are saying about the company, its competition, customer needs, and suggested solutions. Big data and big analytics give the large companies the ability to hone in on relevant information. Think big though. The MWBE can use social media to make connections, but it can also find new contracting opportunities. The key is to showcase expertise online by participating in discussions, making comments on corporate social media sites, participating in forums, and so on.

    Use Connections in Business Plans

    Developing a solid network of business connections is key to success in today’s business environment. Networking can lead to new suppliers, business alliances, and customers. They should be formed before and during startup, and nurtured and expanded to strategically grow the business as described in the business plan.

    Developing business relationships is part of business planning, and that means networking is usually addressed in the business plan. In fact, investors will look for a network or plans for developing a network because of its importance to business sustainability. Decide which organizations can bring the greatest value, attend conferences and trade shows, and take advantage of the many resources made available to MWBEs. A savvy entrepreneur never operates alone.