Expanding the reach of women-owned businesses

Madison’s Amber Swenor was the first American to participate in VV Grow, an international accelerator for women business owners.

The span of recorded human history is about 5,000 years, which means most of the “firsts” have already been accomplished by someone long since passed.

Credit Amber Swenor, founder and brand strategist of Strategic Partners Marketing, for nabbing one of the few remaining firsts last year by becoming the first woman from the U.S. to participate in an international cohort of 39 women business owners that made up the Vital Voices signature business accelerator program, VV GROW.

Vital Voices works with women leaders in the areas of economic empowerment, women’s political participation, and human rights, and VV GROW partners with women leaders across the globe who use business growth to improve their community and world.

Swenor was chosen from a pool of almost 700 applicants based on her demonstrated business growth, commitment to serving her local, regional, and global communities, and potential for continued growth and prosperity.

Participants met for weekly webinars from January through April, attended an in-person, five-day training in Dublin, Ireland in May, and then resumed biweekly web sessions from June through November before graduating in December. The trainings included visionary leadership, strategic networking, financial management for executives, operational management, technology for business growth, leadership, and paying it forward.

A Shawano-area native, Swenor grew up seeing the value that local business owners and local businesses brought to both the economy and the spirit of community, and she wanted to help them succeed.

Her Madison-based business, Strategic Partners Marketing (SPM), partners with companies of all sizes to provide both high-level brand strategy and tactical-level execution of those strategies, including brand strategy, digital marketing, web design, social media, public relations, media relations, and media strategy and buying. In less than three years, Swenor increased SPM’s revenue from $0 to over $1 million and has grown the team to seven employees.

The biggest lesson she took away from VV Grow, however, was that to evolve as a leader and continue her company’s  growth, she can’t do everything.

“My expectations going into the program were to organize and systemize the business so that it could grow more efficiently and without tasks becoming ‘bottle necked’ with me,” explains Swenor. “I wanted to stop holding the company back from growth due to a lack of processes or lack of people. I knew that I wanted to utilize my talents in the places where I could make the biggest impact and get the best output for both clients and for SPM.”

In order to accomplish these goals, Swenor needed to grow as a business leader and essentially become the “CEO,” which required mindset work and making the commitment to growth. “This meant backing myself out of certain tasks and accepting that I wouldn’t touch every task for every client. This also required hiring, training, and empowering a stellar team, trusting that team, and also raising my personal rates.”

Tactically, says Swenor, it required SPM to become more streamlined in its internal processes and removing tasks from her plate that were eating up too much time and weren’t engaging her top strengths.

“I now focus my time on business strategy and being a leader to the team, and client time is focused on key areas that can have the biggest impact such as business coaching, brand strategy, and media strategy,” Swenor says.

Programs like VV Grow are essential for many reasons, notes Swenor, but particularly because women are major drivers of the global economy, yet in most countries, women own significantly fewer businesses than men. “Bringing more women entrepreneurs into the marketplace offers a chance for more successful businesses.”

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Global exchange

“As people, we are members of our own communities, but we are also members of a global community, whether we see it or not,” says Swenor. “Things that happen in the next city, state, or country can affect each of us. While some people are fulfilled to engage solely in their local community, I have always felt a part of a wider worldwide network.”

For business leaders like her who see the power in human connection across the globe, Swenor says VV Grow has been essential. “I am now a part of a global network, having made connections for other fellows among my networks, and they for me. SPM has now worked with businesses based in Costa Rica and Ethiopia, and I’m in regular weekly communication with women based in over 20 different countries where we share advice, resources, and business leads with each other.”

According to Swenor, many of the women in the Vital Voices program are the first in their communities or countries to create a business such as theirs. For example, one participant from Kuwait created the country’s first school for autistic children. “She has an amazing story about how she could never tell anyone her child was autistic or he wouldn’t be allowed into public school,” explains Swenor. “No schools existed for kids like him — it’s very taboo. She created a solution. Another woman in South America created one of the first hearing aid companies.

“In my case, I have a deep personal mission that drives my work, but I hadn’t ever been exposed to a business framework that not only celebrates but supports that deep mission, which Vital Voices calls the Driving Force, as the foundational starting point to strategic growth,” Swenor continues. “Being a part of this program has been transformational, as it’s helped me to unlock and lead with my driving force, to empower others to be successful.”

Research indicates that there is a difference in a more masculine vs. feminine approach to business. It’s said that a masculine approach involves hierarchy, command, and a focus on competition, where the feminine approach is based on networking, persuasion, and collaboration, explains Swenor. It’s beneficial to have equal representation of leadership styles in business; however, in most places in the world, a woman leading a business is doing so within a framework that is dominated by a masculine approach to business.

“With more and more women contributing to the global economy, going into the workforce, and growing businesses, it’s essential to have programs that provide connection and support among women business leaders to share ideas, and be supported in their own leadership styles, even if it’s completely different from everything around them,” says Swenor.

In addition, women in business around the world experience challenges that are different from men in business. Solutions to these challenges must be navigated differently for each woman depending on the unique familial, societal, and cultural context, adds Swenor. For example, in some places in the world, women have to get permission from their husbands in order to work, and some require a male to hold guardianship of a female run business.

“Programs like Vital Voices are essential, as they unite women in a global peer mentorship network where we can discuss our business challenges, which sometimes involve familial, societal, and cultural factors that impact business problems, solutions, and decisions,” Swenor says. “In some places, women leaders do not have a network to confide in, or navigate solutions with, and Vital Voices provides this essential network for women to navigate challenges that are unique only to women in business.”

Editor's note: A condensed version of this article originally appeared in the January 2019 print issue of In Business magazine.

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