When Debbie Hurst was tapped to take the helm of the Women’s Business Council–Southwest in 1997, she already had deep experience in the nonprofit social services sector. Her background working with mentally ill patients, pregnant teens, and runaways—plus an executive leadership role with AIDS Arms—made her a perfect fit to lead the WBCS. The nonprofit organization strives to help women succeed in the for-profit world.
“It was an opportunity for me to stretch and grow and learn about for-profit America—but not be in it,” she says.
We met for lunch at Piccolo Mondo, an Italian restaurant just around the corner from WBCS’s offices in Arlington. From our window table you couldn’t help but notice the grandiose view of AT&T Stadium. Hurst ordered the tilapia, one of the specials of the day. I stayed safe with the fettuccini, a classic that’s difficult to mess up.
Between bites, Hurst explains that the WBCS is comprised of women-owned business enterprises, or WBE members, that have been certified as being 51 percent women-owned, operated, and controlled. Hurst and her team certify and re-certify each organization every year to ensure standards are met and maintained.
The more profitable they are, the more they invest in their community.
In addition, the WBCS also includes “sustaining” members—corporations, government entities, institutions, or nonprofits looking for access to women-owned businesses. There are roughly 1,100 certified WBE members and an army of sustaining members from Fortune 500 corporations including AT&T, Texas Instruments, Toyota, ExxonMobil, and American Airlines.
The more profitable they are, the more they invest in their community.Debbie Hurst
The WBCS covers of a four-state region that includes Oklahoma, Central and North Texas, Arkansas, and New Mexico. The Women’s Enterprise National Council in Washington, D.C., sets the certification standards and procedures for the WBS and other regional partner organizations sprinkled throughout the U.S. The WBCS itself is fully funded by membership fees and event sponsorships.
Usually, sustaining members are looking to hire women-owned businesses to help achieve supplier diversity goals. There are no specific laws that require companies to maintain this diversity, but they lead with the understanding that it drives innovation and competition while increasing corporate investment in both communities and customers. Boiled down, WBE members align themselves with the Women’s Business Council chapters to connect with Fortune 500 companies. “We are the bridge,” Hurst says.
It seems like a win-win to me. Plus, there are networking events and trade shows that members can attend throughout the year. And although Hurst has a good-natured, generous attitude, she is also quick to note that “your membership doesn’t guarantee you business.” It does guarantee access, as she puts it.
Hurst has been advocating for women-owned businesses for the last 18 years and, although society is progressing, her work is far from finished.
“With organizations like ours, we are going to keep moving the needle,” she says. “But it’s not just [up to] organizations like ours. I can’t say enough about the power and commitment of major corporations; they understand the importance of doing business with women-owned businesses and minority-owned businesses—anybody who has a historical lack of access to decision-makers. They have a loud, strong voice, and they really help to move that needle for women-owned businesses.”
When Hurst began at WBCS, it had about 100 members. Now, it has more than 1,000. But for Hurst, success isn’t in the numbers.
“For me, it is not only certifying more women-owned businesses, but helping those who are certified grow their business and become financially profitable,” she says, noting the broad reach of her corporate clients. “The more profitable they are, the more they invest in their community. It trickles down into every aspect of our society.”