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Entrepreneurship: So You Want to Sell to Big Corporations on Your Own Terms? Let’s Talk.

Periodically someone writes a comment (or four or five) on a Linked In article that gets my attention. Not always because it’s particularly wise or well-thought out, let’s be clear. But someone makes a point that raises an eyebrow.

Two weeks ago I wrote an article about how to position yourself for the big corporate market. The piece specifically addressed the F500. Most, if not many, tend towards the conservative side.

I was writing about the conferences I’ve attended where executives, usually buyers, from those corporations would man the booths. Hundreds of them, including a who’s who of America’s biggest corporations. It would be fair to say most are pretty open-minded about doing business with small suppliers, but they also have their own corporate folks to answer to. That means they have to choose wisely, and are looking for a culture fit.

My comments included observations about how (in this specific situation) women-owned companies would pay to attend, and act as though it were a summer vacation in Cabo. Get drunk, get laid, get loud. In front of people who were carefully assessing them as potential business partners. A lot of money is at stake here, and some small companies are very successful by playing their cards correctly. They have grown, hired people, expanded their footprint and become highly valuable members of the corporate supply chain. That doesn’t happen overnight, nor is that handed to them on a silver platter.

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The young woman in question called me on the carpet about my comments that in this kind of corporate environment, being seen dancing on a table with your blouse unbuttoned to your waist might not be a good business strategy. As someone who has worked in supply chain, I’ve heard my compatriots tell horror stories about women who, during the day, had nailed the first impression and the next step only to shoot that same opportunity between the eyes that same night. (Kindly, this is hardly limited to women- it’s anyone who behaves badly in the wrong environment.)

This woman was haranguing “patriarchal corporate rules” (as in common sense dress code, common sense behavior in given situations) as though I was a big fan. She attacked the idea that in certain environments, it pays to be mindful of the expectations. I responded politely and did my best to explain. There are plenty of very smart, successful women (and minorities and veterans, etc.) who own very sizable companies. They often have the same expectations of dress and behavior as any other corporation. In part, because they’re selling to those companies.

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BTW the woman in question is a geologist working as a tattoo artist and, if I recall correctly a dog groomer. In her world, at least in parts of it, she can sport any tattoo she wants, facial hardware she wants, rip her shirt off and show off her tits for all anyone cares.

She went on to complain to me that she was glad I wasn’t her mother and clearly, since her son had hair that was too long, he wouldn’t be acceptable in my world. This had descended into puerile stupidity.

I blocked her. There really is no point. She put out a call for women to take over the corporate world forever. Start their own businesses and screw the patriarchy.

Yah. Okay. Check with me in a century, okay? Things change glacially in big business. In all ways, that’s a long strategy. By that time, things may have changed drastically. But not for the short term.

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Let’s be frank. These rules are just as powerful overseas. In some Middle Eastern countries I’d have to wear a head scarf and behave according to local laws. As a Western woman I don’t go striding into meeting with my skirt halfway to my hips and cherry red pumps. Any time we want to play for money, we make concessions. The business world doesn’t much care how you feel about it.

If I want do do business with BNSF, I need to respect their conservative, military-style top-down structure. I’d never dream of walking into the CEO’s office without going through channels. In a Silicon Valley startup there might be a very casual open door policy, shorts, Birkenstocks and full sleeve tats. I happen to very much enjoy people’s individual expression, and I also love it when a corporation is open-minded enough to allow it to flourish. However, in the world’s biggest companies, that’s not widespread.

Knowing when to do what is the key.

Nobody in these companies gives a flying damn about my need to express myself. That’s selfish, self-centered and frankly, ignorant. As ignorant and unsophisticated as the party girls who shot their wad at the conferences. They didn’t understand why their deals fell through, why people never returned their calls. As big corporations open their doors to smaller suppliers and entrepreneurs, it’s not their job to put on a finishing school so that you and I can get contracts.

To give you an idea of how widespread these misapphrehensions are, some time ago I suggested to a fellow speaker friend of mine, a woman who provided soft skills training, that she might want to look into getting certified to do business with the corporate market. Her response?

Oh, so they’re going to pay me more because I’m a woman?”

I had to suck in my breath. No, honey. Being a woman doesn’t get you paid more. Being best in class, being able to solve a pressing problem, doing that service better than the competition gets you paid. Not necessarily more, but it gets you paid. And you and I have to beat out the competition in order to get that contract in the first place, the same way every other supplier who has gotten a contract before us did. Nobody owes us anything, most particularly just because we happen to be female, or Black, or Asian, or disabled, or veteran or any other socio-economic status. Big corporations aren’t charities.

Nor should they be forced to put up with our idiosyncratic behavior, pink hair, tattoos, nose rings, or propensity for shredded leggings if this particular choice of dress offends their customers or employees.

For example, Chick Fil-A has a religious culture I rather strongly disagree with as it pertains to women’s reproductive rights. That’s their company and their rights have been upheld in the courts. What in God’s name is the point if I rail at them for not agreeing with me? There are thirty million companies in the United States. Find one whose culture you fit, and see if you can earn your way to do business with that one.

Photo by Vitaly Nikolenko on Unsplash

If this young woman has an issue about having to dress or behave a certain way to do business with huge multi-national corporations, then for crying out loud, don’t. Or, do what many of us do: dress appropriately for your client’s environment and rave all your want on your own damned time, out of sight. Having worked for a few of America’s largest aerospace corporations I can speak to what it’s like on the inside. Breaking in is tough.

What she and a great many other small suppliers do not understand is that opening up the supply chain to small businesses, especially those owned by protected classes like women, disabled, minority, disabled vet and the like, is still a relatively new phenomenon. We’ve only just recently been given the ticket to play. You don’t come onto the playing field where you were previously shut out and promptly take a dump on the fifty yard line. That’s a very good way to convince those in power that opening the door to us was a bad idea in the first place. I can guarantee you that a large percentage of those buyers don’t care to be bothered with the challenge of opening up cracks in their supply chain to let in new players. It takes work, time, money, trouble, and frankly, for some of us, it’s just too much hassle for these very reasons. Many corporations are still figuring this out even though supplier diversity per se has been in place for more than forty years.

While I agree that it’s unfortunate that it’s taken this long, look, that door IS open now. Let’s treat that opening door with the respect it deserves and find ways to make it work for everyone.

Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

There are a great many executives who want to do the right thing and help grow America’s small businesses. There are avenues open to us, but they get to dictate the rules. It’s no different from requiring the neighborhood kids to take their shoes off wash their hands and behave with courtesy when they come over for dinner at your house. You have every single right to demand those kids behave appropriately if they’re going to partake of your food and sit with your family. This is precisely the same thing.

Don’t like the rules? Then don’t try to play at this level. The money can be good, the rewards worthwhile. But you don’t spit in your host’s face if you want to do business with him- or her.

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Julia E Hubbel

Julia E Hubbel

Horizon Huntress, prize-winning author, adventure traveler, boundary-pusher, wilder, veteran, aging vibrantly. I own my sh*t. Let’s play! www.walkaboutsaga.com