Harnessing the Power of Networks

by Jennifer “JJ” Davis, executive director, Dell Consumer, Small & Medium Business Communications

Starting a business requires a huge leap of faith. To weather the inevitable storms, it’s crucial to lean on others for support. Finding the right networks, and knowing how to use them, can make all the difference.

We believe that women are natural networkers – the glue in communities both in business and in the wider world. Women are also occupying an increasingly important role in the global economy.  For example, women will influence the purchase of $15 trillion in goods by 2014 (Boston Consulting Group).  

Research by American Express shows that between  1997 and 2011, when the number of businesses in the United States increased by 34 percent, the number of women-owned firms increased by 50 percent—a rate 1½ times the national average.  Globally, women are starting a reputed 3 of every 5 businesses, making them the fastest growing entrepreneurial segment. While women are successfully starting and growing businesses, they are underserved by the financial community and other, established and influential networks that can be hard to break into. For example, despite owning 30% of businesses, less than 5% of venture capital funding goes to female CEOs according to Dow Jones VentureSource.

Against this backdrop, new networks are emerging aimed at supporting women in some specific areas. With the creation of the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network in 2010, we are now connected with hundreds of women entrepreneurs from around the world. These relationships were not built solely on our reliable IT expertise and support, but by creating and nurturing a community of like-minded businesswomen to exchange ideas, mentor each other and even do business with one another.

In fact, many of our DWEN conversations have nothing to do with technology. We talk about things like marketing to Gen-Y, pitching to a venture capital firm, getting the necessary funding to scale your business, and training. We either share our experiences at Dell, or bring in outside experts to enable them to be successful. What we see in return is a passionate community of advocates who network together, give us great insights into what we need to do to improve our products and solutions.  Since the network began in 2010, we’ve seen new relationships forged and business deals struck – including expansion into new countries, increased partnerships and investments, and rethinking of company strategies.

Other groups with similar missions to DWEN include accelerator programs such as Founder LabsSpringboard Enterprises and Astia who have built effective pipelines for catalyzing high-growth, women-led businesses. Additionally, a number of investment firms are solely focused on women including BELLE Capital, Phenomenelle Angels, Illuminate Ventures, and the Women’s Venture Fund.

Back at Dell, we recently announced our first entrepreneur-in-residence program. One of the women from the network, Ingrid Vanderveldt, is now working on behalf of Dell by leveraging her own expertise and outside network to shape perceptions around what women need and what we need to do better as a business.

One of her biggest contributions to date has been the creation of the Dell Innovators Credit Fund, a first-of-its-kind financing program that provides companies credit for end-to-end, scalable technology solutions so growing businesses can focus funding on marketing, research and sales during that crucial early time in market. As part of this effort, we launched the Dell Entrepreneur in Residence Community that offers specialized advice for entrepreneurs who are self-funded, seeking funding or already funded. Entrepreneurs at all stages of growth are invited to join this community to access videos and case studies featuring successful businesses, advice from Dell and industry experts, and details on Dell initiatives and technology offerings.

So our advice to women who run into stumbling blocks as their businesses grow is to first look to the solutions that exist within their networks.  Entrepreneurship can be a lonely road, but there are people and companies out there that can help you solve your problems – it’s sometimes just about knowing where to look.  The people in your networks can help you identify solutions or, if they can’t help, they will point you in the direction of someone who can.