Every year, we write at least one post about networking for the SDMWVLGBTBE (Small Disadvantaged or Disabled, Minority, Women, Veteran, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgendered Business Enterprise) business owner. And, it would seem to be that time of year, as we gear up for the 20th annual national conference for WBENC, the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council. We’ve been involved with this, the largest third party certifier of WBEs (Women Business Enterprises), for just over 18 years and are looking forward to attending our 7th time. Each year the number of sponsors and attendees grows, so for us it is a perfect use of our networking and conference budget funds.

We have had several recent conversations about why a small organization should have a budget for and/or bother to attend networking events. We were honestly surprised by the push back from some of the participants. It has been our experience that people like to do business with people and organizations that they know. Sure, you can hope that potential clients will first, find you through an internet search, and then be so blown away by your business’s web presence that they will buy from you right this minute. And, that could very well be the scenario if you sell a particular product (do people still make widgets?) that has little or no competition. If, on the other hand, your business is like that of the majority of us, this could be wishful thinking.

Each business has to target the networking events that will achieve its own goals and objectives, but for us, this is one of largest gatherings of supplier diversity and procurement managers that we know are absolutely committed to buying goods and services from certified WBEs. (And, many of these corporations are also sponsors or members of National Minority Supplier Diversity Council, the National Gay & Lesbian Changer of Commerce, and the US Business Leadership Network who certifies business owned by people with disabilities.) Plus, because we also subcontract to other primes, many of our customers will be in Las Vegas later this month.

So how do we prepare for large networking event? First, we look at the list of sponsors and make a prioritized plan: at least 15 new companies that we want to meet; existing contacts we may have had difficulty maintaining communication with; and, people we want to see again in person. Email and phone calls are great, but there’s nothing like a quick face to face chat to remind a potential client of who you are. Given there will be so many of them in one place for five days, it really makes good use of our time.

We practice our elevator speeches for introductions to new contacts. We make note of new services and projects that we can talk about since last year. We have our new business cards, plenty of them, packed into every spare pocket. And, we divvy up the tasks between the two of us who will be attending. We remind each other to pack comfortable shoes (and clothing) — there’s nothing more annoying than sore feet when traipsing around a huge conference center. Last fall, Alyssa Gregory wrote tips to prepare for a small business conference that definitely apply here.

At an event like this national conference, we’re likely all there for the same reasons – to expand our business’s reach. So, one thing that works best for us, striking up those random conversations, particularly with people waiting in lines, hanging out at the pool, at the breakfast buffet or next to you at the bar. You’re only strangers until you start to communicate. We have established good working relationships with business people we happened to sit next to for breakfast or on the shuttle bus or while waiting for a speaker to arrive. Speaking of speakers, we’re so exited that Octavia Spencer is the keynote speaker at the tribute dinner on June 22nd.

We’ll likely have even more to say after the conference! In fact, we thought we’d do an informal survey to see if others share our belief that conferences and conventions are absolutely the greatest place for SDMWVLGBTBEs to network with corporate sponsors, potential clients and each other.