WCEC event: Why supporting woman entrepreneurs impacts entirety of economy

In soon-to-be majority-minority state, helping fastest-growing entrepreneurial community (females) is vital to future success

It was great to hear five women entrepreneurs — all representing at least one underserved community — pitch their businesses to bankers and investors in a “Shark Tank”-like competition.

It was great to have state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) gave an inspiring keynote address about the importance of female business owners.

And it was great to simply have the event in person — for the first time since the pandemic.

The real impact of the sixth annual event from the WCEC Women’s Business Center was much greater: It served as a representation of a key aspect of the state’s business development future.

The state is quickly becoming majority-minority. And women have long been an outsized percentage of founders.

So, why isn’t more being done to nurture and develop this community?

Rana Shanawani, who has been the executive director of the nonprofit Women’s Center for Entrepreneurship for more than a decade, is doing her part.

The pitch event, held Tuesday morning in Livingston, was a culmination of a yearlong process in which numerous female entrepreneurs worked on their business models — and elevator pitches — before five were selected to present before leading banks (Wells Fargo was a primary sponsor) and potential investors.

“The priority of this event was supporting the clients who pitched,” she said. “Bringing them together with a room full of powerful resources from the government, banks, law firms and investors was an inspiring culmination of everyone’s hard work.”

At a crucial time.

In an era when diversity, equity & inclusion programs suddenly are being called into question — when the limited strides underserved communities have made are being challenged — Shanawani and the WCEC are doing their part to keep opportunities available.

“The backlash against DEI undermines efforts to create inclusive environments — and can only come from those who have led privileged lives and have no empathy for those who did not,” she said.

“DEI is crucial for fostering innovation, understanding, empathy and profits. Pushing back against DEI not only slows progress toward equality but also ignores the experiences and challenges faced by marginalized groups. Embracing DEI isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s essential for building stronger organizations and societies that respect and reflect the diversity of people.”

The event showed the potential.

Rana Shanawani, left, executive director of the Women’s Center for Entrepreneurship, presents a proclamation to state Sen. Teresa Ruiz following her keynote address.

Yaa Haber, founder and owner of 3 Sisters Beauty, took first place, followed by Yvonne Gonzalez of YG Consulting, Chanice Fish of Taste of the Caribbean Food Market, Jacqueline Bediako of Eclipse Behavioral Health and Cassie McCombs of Agile Logistics Partners.

Ruiz said supporting companies like these goes far beyond just helping them individually — it helps the entirety of the economy, she said.

“I don’t understand why entities still don’t realize that if more of us (women) are seated at the table, either on corporate boards, or in director positions or in leadership roles, that you all would make so much more money,” she said. “We are the consumers. We are over 50% of the voting bloc and we do not represent that at any level of government in the state.”

Lifting this group brings challenges — and takes more than just an event, Shanawani said.

“One of the biggest and newest challenges post-pandemic is that all businesses must have e-sales plus digital marketing to survive,” she said. “For most businesses, that is an immense mystery that needs to be solved — how do you get those sales conversions?”

The WCEC is doing its part.

“We coach them to work smart and not hard — start with the optimal social media platform for their type of business, build an engaged online presence and then get the e-sales — and, still, many struggle because they don’t have the skills or the bandwidth to manage that part of their business,” she said. “The WCEC educates the clients to both learn the skills and also coaches them to hire when the timing and budget is right.”

Until then, in-person gatherings, like the one Tuesday that drew approximately 100 people, are a great start, Shanawani said.

“Experiencing our first in-person event since COVID was energizing and felt so much more impactful and memorable,” she said. “Meeting face-to-face solidifies business connections in a way that virtual meetings will never match. It was a refreshing reminder of the power of personal connections and how valuable they are in business and beyond.”