Astra Women's Business Alliance 20th Anniversary
Astra Through the Looking Glass
When: July 24-25
Where: The Nines Hotel, 525 S.W. Morrison St.
Businesswomen from all over the U.S. and Canada will converge on Portland early next week to develop new business strategies and network through the supply chain.
Astra's 20th anniversary event, "Astra Through the Looking Glass," is a workshop at The Nines, July 24-25, beginning with an evening cruise ride on the Willamette Star with a networking dinner.
Lake Oswego-based Astra Women's Business Alliance is a nonprofit co-founded by twin sisters Diane McClelland and Suzanne Lackman. A regional partner organization of the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), Astra provides WBENC certification for women-owned businesses, along with events and educational programs that help create opportunities for women business owners.
The conference takes place on July 25, with panels on successful immigrant women entrepreneurs, successful nontraditional business women, technology innovation, commerce as a pathway to peace, breakout sessions and keynote speakers.
"We're going to be providing information to women-owned businesses in several different areas: how to look at expanding their business globally, and we're inviting women from Canada that are looking to do business with women in the U.S., so it'll be a great opportunity for building some cross-border relationships," Diane McClelland told the Business Tribune. "We're also inviting tech companies — Amazon Business, Microsoft, Intel and Facebook — they will be there to talk about how to do business with them, and how the importance of using technology is a way of getting more innovation for your business."
The conference also focuses on the importance of getting certified through the WBENC network, which allows women-owned businesses to do business with major Fortune 500 companies globally who are looking for more suppliers in their supply chains.
The Federal Reserve Bank, Wells Fargo and US Bank will be represented at the conference along with Starbucks and others.
"How we're positioning this is all about economic development and job creation," McClelland said. "We as an organization ... become the gateway to many of these large organizations because we bring these companies to the table to meet with these women-owned businesses who have the chance to pitch their expertise to a globally-owned business."
"We have women coming from Canada, D.C., Texas, Montana, Oregon, Idaho, and we have a lot of other regional women coming to be here for Oregon women to meet," McClelland said.
Astra also hosts events in Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Washington and California, covering a total of six states.
"One new thing (this year) is ... we have the pleasure of having Almas Jiwani come — she heads up UN Women Canada — she travels around the world globally meeting with the government to talk about the importance of women as individuals and as contributors to the world's economy and to the world's innovation," McClelland said. "Her resume is incredible, she was with us four years ago, she's such an inspirational speaker. She's talking about all the things happening to women, and happening for women around the world. There is power that we all have as women and we can make a difference, even one person at a time."
Almas Jiwani is also the president of the Almas Jiwani Foundation and the CEO of Frontier Canada Inc. Her topic is "The Power of Women."
"She's going to be speaking along with Pamela Prince-Eason, the president (and CEO) of WBENC," McClelland said. "Pam's going to be talking about the WBENC network we're a part of that focuses on helping women get certified: they can use this women-owned logo and be part of this huge initiative that's been started."
WalMart has pledged to increase its spending with women for the next five years.
"We also have within that initiative WBENC is talking about, Exxon Mobil, PepsiCo, Coca Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Lockheed Martin — all these companies have created a much larger focus on doing business with women-owned business in the next five years," McClelland said. "We want Oregon women to know that if they want to grow their companies exponentially, they need to come be a part of this conference so they can learn more how to do this."
Along with Fortune 500 representatives, the conference will also feature success stories from its member network.
"We will also be featuring five women-owned businesses that have emigrated to this country. They did not speak English, became a part of our network and built multi-million dollar companies," McClelland said. "Talking about their story, we live in this country, speak the same language and we think it's difficult starting a company — but just think of the language and cultural barriers these women have overcome."
Astra's intersectionality spans cultural diversity as well as religious.
"We're also doing something we've never done before: Oregon — particularly the Portland Metro — has become really known for building bridges through interfaith cultural communities, so we're inviting Wadji Said, who heads the Muslim Education Trust, along with Jewish rabbi David Kosak and a Christian minister to come talk about the pathway to peace is building relationships through commerce," McClelland said. "We've been impressed with the Muslim Education Trust because they've been a leader in the Portland Metro area for 22 years. They have built collaborations with Jewish and Christian communities to come together and look at what they have in common, rather than what they have that is different."
Continued challenges for businesswomen
"Women are still not paid equally. Women represent 40 percent of (business ownership) nationally today, yet they're still only maybe getting less than 4 percent of federal contract," McClelland said. "They're only getting maybe 16-20 percent of all corporate contracts, so they are still lagging behind having an equal place at the table."
Repeating the statistics here reinforces how much work there still remains to do toward an equitable business marketplace in the U.S.
"Childcare, access to markets and access to capital — I see those as still the three major challenges for women today," McClelland said. "We still have a lot more work to do in having the workforce address women that were wanting to still have families and still feel they can contribute to providing solutions in the world's economy. Many other cultures outside the U.S. do create platforms for women to have childcare at work. That's a big detriment to our society, we have not truly addressed that."
Suzanne Lackman, co-founder of Astra, tried to start her first business in the '70s.
"My husband and I had excellent credit and I worked part-time but was mainly at home taking care of kids and stuff," Lackman said. "When we got a divorce in 1975, I found out no one would issue me a credit card unless there was a man on it. In order for me to start my own credit history, my ex had to cosign for me to get a gasoline credit card to start my own credit history — even though we had excellent credit together and I was working part-time."
Even though the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed in 1974, discrimination persisted.
She went ahead and started her businesses, one being a tool liquidation retailer, despite the challenge to find access to capital.
"A couple times I had male partners and it was my money in it. I'd go to attorneys or CPAs and they wouldn't even look at me, always asking questions of the males," Lackman said. "It was like I was invisible. I would say excuse me, I'm a 50-50 co-owner, it's my money going into this so I need to be part of these discussions."
Even with her own customers, they'd question her expertise and knowledge — until they became regulars.
"The most funny one I can remember is when some guy with his two buddies wanted to bicker with me on mobile home tires. He said that's not good enough for me, let me talk to the owner," Lackman recalled. "I was so pleased to say, you're talking to her. They got so embarrassed they all three turned around and left."
While Lackman describes it as an ongoing challenge, she developed tough responses that generated respect.
"The main thing is to be open and basically lay the ground rules out. If someone isn't respecting you, you need to call them on it and say sorry, you're talking to the owner," Lackman said. "Sometimes, you have to come right out and tell them you need to be treated with respect or I won't be able to do business with you. I find in recent years, you don't have to go that far anymore."
And in running nonprofit Astra, the sisters still troubleshoot challenges.
"Running a nonprofit today is challenging because you have to always provide programming that is relevant to not only women-owned businesses but also that corporations find valuable," McClelland said. "It's continuing to talk with your stakeholders to find out what's important to them."
Over time, McClelland found three items critical to growth for women-owned business — the first is how to use technology to expand business, and change up products and services to keep them relevant.
"The second one is to continue to look at how you can create better efficiencies in your company so you can lower the cost of doing business with these larger corporations," McClelland said. "Price is always a consideration so if women can become more efficient within their company and help reduce costs, they can become more competitive in the marketplace."
"The third is to research, get to know the potential customers that you want to do business with. Spend time on their website, analyze their annual reports and figure out who their customers are so that when women approach companies to offer their services, women-owned businesses know and understand what the potential customers' pain points are," McClelland said. "It's always looking further down the chain to see who the candidate companies are so they can continue to remain relevant using tech and innovation."