2020 Honoree

Elizabeth Vazquez

CEO and Co-Founder, WEConnect International

“…I think there are enough men and women today who understand how important it is to have diversity of thought because statistically it has been demonstrated over and over that the results are just better when you bring in different ideas and different experiences…”

In your opinion, what qualities make a “Power Woman”?

The power women I know take risks. They’re very comfortable in their own decision making and they leverage their years of experience to make decisions quickly. But they also tend to be very inclusive in that they get a sense of if it’s a decision that’s going to impact others, they tend to bring in that community to find out what their needs are. It’s that type of leadership decision that has an impact. So I find it to be a very inclusive leadership, the ones that are most successful. And they’re also willing to change, they’re willing to pivot. If it wasn’t a good decision, they’re willing to pivot.

Do you believe that there is any gender specific role for women to play in the COVID-19 pandemic? Do you believe that the response to the pandemic highlights and emphasizes the actual resilience of women?

I absolutely agree that women are a critical part of the solution to rebuilding, and that they are uniquely qualified as the world’s caretakers. They play a huge role in rebuilding our communities and our businesses in a way that is more inclusive and more sustainable in the future. I do feel like women are playing a critical role with men in the COVID response crisis, but I also feel like a lot of the women are not being leveraged, especially as business owners for the next stage of rebuilding. I say that because a lot of, for example, The United States, a lot of the businesses that received funding received it because of their strong banking relationship. So if women didn’t have those same banking relationships in place, their ability to move to the front of the line was seriously challenged. That’s just one example, and there are many many examples where once again we’re going to be rebuilding the old way and not taking advantage of all the things that women have to offer, that they are uniquely qualified to offer in community building, business building and economy building going forward.

With all of the different issues that one could focus on how do you balance your efforts in pursuit of gender equality and do you feel that that should be a global approach or is it very specifically related to what you’re passionate about?

So I follow the money, literally. So I’m interested in how power works. And one of the best ways to understand the power dynamics is to follow money and to understand who has it and how they spend it. If you understand that, you have to start looking at value chains and supply chains. When you start looking at those value chains and supply chains, while women play an absolutely critical role in making decisions at the household level and about what to purchase, they are literally invisible in these value chains as suppliers of products and services. So they are not receiving much. They receive very little of the money that is spent by the rest of the world by large organizations of products and services. That creates huge inequalities when it comes to women’s income and their ability to, in turn, spend it on the things that they care about, which are things we all care about. I know that women tend to spend their money differently, on their families, their communities, and on their building and employee base when they’re owners of businesses as opposed to mechanizing. So it is critical in my opinion. If you want to focus on changing the world you have to look at the role of women because it’s a huge under tapped or underutilized resource. You have to look at women’s economic empowerment. When you look at economic empowerment, you have to follow the money. And you realize that women aren’t earning nearly as much of the money and therefore aren’t controlling as much of the power as the men of the world. That’s why I focus on women as business owners in supply chains and large suppliers. To ensure that they benefit from the solutions that women provide. It’s stupid. It doesn’t make any sense socially, economically, it doesn’t make any sense to leave behind half your resources. It’s a huge gap and market failure.

What do you feel is the number 1 action we as a society can take to forward empowering women and gender equality?

Buy from women. It’s so simple. I think it’s so simple that we take it for granted. We are looking for big picture solutions, big government programs, multilateral programs, NGO projects. It’s not that it isn’t complicated, it is. We have to do more than just buy from women, of course. We have to invest in them, make sure they have the tools, the knowledge, the networks to be able to be as successful as possible and to reach their full potential. But if you want the simple answer to the biggest question, it’s how much do I spend with women. And that is the fastest way without a doubt. I’ve looked at a lot of data over the years and if we want to change economies, if we want inclusive growth, we want everyone to prosper and contribute, we have to look at how we spend our money. And we have to ensure that at least some of that money goes to communities that we care about, and it’s not just women, it’s women, it’s ethnic minorities or aboriginal people or people with disabilities, it’s LGBT community members, there’s a range of community members that are not engaged and that is to everyone’s detriment. To keep it simple, as individuals we all have purchasing power. Organizations have purchasing power. We’re gonna buy stuff anyway, let’s just make sure some of it gets spent with women.

When have you encountered some block related to gender or another personal experience that is aligned with that space?

So I think part of this is a recognition that we still have a long way to go. I was recently at a fundraising dinner, or maybe it was a brunch -it was a fundraising brunch and I was sitting at a table with my husband and my daughter and seven other people that we didn’t know and everyone was being very curious about who’s at the table. And we were asking each other about our backgrounds, our interests, what we do, and a man sitting across from me asked me what I did and I said ‘oh I work with women owned businesses as a large organization that wants to buy products and services from women owned businesses’. And he looked at me and said in front of everyone ‘oh you hate men’. And I was kind of waiting for him to laugh and make it a joke and then it became really obvious that it wasn’t a joke, that what I said about working with women owned businesses, to him, the way he interpreted that was that I hated men. And so I think it was a reminder of how much work we still have to do to educate ourselves as women, but also men who feel threatened by women’s empowerment, to make it clear to everyone that it is in everyone’s best interest if everyone in our society can contribute to society and not have that be an assumption. That by giving an opportunity to one person doesn’t mean that you’re taking it away from another person. So that’s something that just happened recently that took me back. This wasn’t in some other country, this was in the United States where everyone thinks that men and women are treated equally. It was just a good reminder. He (my husband) looked at me and he was like, “what is he talking about?” But instead of getting angry I just stayed calm and said, “No of course I don’t hate men, I love my husband and I love men. I do this work because I love men and women and I want everyone to have an equal opportunity. The corporations we work with, the amount of money they spend on products and services, only 1% of that is with women-owned businesses.” He’s like, “really?” And I’m like, “yeah they own a third of the world’s businesses,women are half the world’s population, and we make almost all of the consumer based purchases, but we’re invisible in supply chains. We’re not really able to get in and sell our solution.” He said, “oh,” and then the conversation ended. But yeah, just a powerful reminder. At some point we have to realize that we’re half the population and that isn’t working for us. We have to change things and decide that this isn’t working for us. We have to change the paradigm. We’re gonna change the system. So yes, it’s an opportunity for both men and women to change our hearts and our minds about what we value and how we think about roles and responsibilities.

Do you think that asking the previous salary requirements in job interviews contributes to the pay gap between men and women today and should we push for any kind of national ban on this?

Absolutely. What you were paid last has absolutely nothing to do with your ability to do a job and to have a certain value. It has a market value. It has nothing to do with whether you are willing to take less money in the past or you were paid more money in the past and you’re willing to take a pay cut. None of that has market bearing on the value of the work that you’re going to do, that you’re interviewing for. So I feel that salary history should absolutely not be included in interviews because in my opinion it has no relevance.

There are many studies that support a female presence in the boardroom increases the bottom line and leads to a healthier work environment what can we do to continue to support the presence of women in high profile positions?

I think there are enough men and women today who understand how important it is to have diversity of thought because statistically it has been demonstrated over and over that the results are just better when you bring in different ideas and different experiences. So it’s really incumbent upon all of us to get better organized. A lot of what we still hear from recruiters helping to or from hiring organizations that are seeking board members or senior executives, is that they still can’t find enough qualified women. And I think that we have to do everything that we can to understand, why do they think that? And how do we make it as easy as possible for supply to demand? So that’s what we’re making at WeConnect. Making sure that buyers that say they want to buy from women, you have to make that as easy as possible. You have to not only help them with their system’s changes to be able to track that and measure impact over time, but you also have to measure the supply of women owned businesses. This is no different. We have to continue to have different databases for women who meet the qualifications for board positions. I think we have to invest in ourselves as women and in each other to make sure we have the required experience, certificate, or financial expertise. But then when the position becomes open, we also have to actively nominate each other and promote each other. So all aspects of this, and then I think key to all of this, are actually the recruiting firms. A lot of times when a corporation is looking for a new board member or an executive, they use the recruiting firms. Those firms have not historically been great at providing names of female candidates and so there have been some campaigns to make sure that those organizations and companies have access to those lists of qualified candidates. So it’s kind of looking at the value chain of what are the needs and how do they go to market to find the qualified candidates and making sure that there are no gaps in that process, no excuses because there are plenty of women out there but if no one knows about them it does make it difficult for them to be hired. We just have to make the invisible visible.

Was there a defining moment or experience in your life that led you to where you are today?

So my mom was in a very abusive situation and she was able to get out of the country with her children because she had a yard sale and was able to sell stuff to convert it to money to have the money she needed to get out of the country and to get out of a really dangerous relationship. So that role modeling at a very young age of someone being entrepreneurial and having enough money to make a decision to change her life and to change the life of her children, I think having that role model has absolutely impacted what I do today because there are too many women out there who don’t have the ability, they don’t think they have the ability or they actually don’t have the ability to get out of a situation and to make a transition into a better life. So I want to, I work really really hard, to make sure women have an opportunity to do what they want and do what they need to do.

Have you seen changes in the political changes in the political landscape in the last few years?

I think that, from the numbers, the political landscape has opened up. If you look at the national numbers you can see the numbers are increasing. Here in Georgia, we have our first woman senator who has just taken office. That’s the first time for Georgia. I’ve told people there will be good things that come out of Covid-19, but one of the things I noticed is that some of the governors that are women are speaking out about Covid-19. One is the governor of Michigan. She was very vocal about what was needed for her state. It wasn’t even somebody I knew anything about. So, it is opening up, but clearly we have not gotten there in terms of we haven’t had a female president yet, we had a candidate, but didn’t quite make it. So, more to come there.

Was there a defining moment or experience in your life that led you to where you are today?

It’s interesting because while we do have some really amazing role models like Markel, it hasn’t changed as fast as I think it can. Again, because there are so many democracies and women are half the population and if we do get more organized there are a lot of things that we can change very very quickly. So yes, I feel that we are moving in the right direction in our politics. But there’s still so many things about how the government is run in our country and other countries where women should be playing a much more active leadership role. That part is disappointing to me and frustrating. If you just look at who is running things, some countries have more balance of the men and women involved and then there are still others who are in OECD countries, G7, G20, that are not nearly as inclusive as they need to be. And that is a responsibility for the men and the women of the world in those countries. And for me, I’ve always believed that democracy is in the streets. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to go out and protest, it just means that you have to get out. You literally have to leave your home and take action for the things that you care about. Whether that’s running for office, voting for people that you believe in, campaigning, donating, you have to be proactive. You just can’t sit back and complain about how the government isn’t working if you haven’t been a part of the process. And it’s not enough to just assume, ‘well I’m paying my taxes’. I think it’s incredibly important for all of us to be active in the leadership that we select and put in power to make decisions on our behalf. And I don’t think anyone loves where we are. I think everyone sees opportunities for improvement. But we have to take action. We can’t just sit back and wait for decisions to be made. So we truly do have responsibility and opportunities to stay engaged.

Education is important to any society. Why is education so expensive? Or is it not? Why is it owned privately?

I do believe that the pandemic just emphasized how education is a public good. In fact, what we know can and must be shared. We can try to put a price tag on it but the genie is out of the bottle. There’s a lot, pretty much any information that is known, a lot of that is already available on the internet. So people’s ability to self-educate or educate within groups is really high now like much much higher than it’s ever been in history. The democratization of knowledge, and again, as a free public good. So I think that that’s happening by default by the nature of how we’re all engaging with information technology. I think it can’t stay the way it is now because people just won’t, they will find other ways. I think the question is less about access to the information and the communities because that’s part of it, when you go to certain schools you’re also becoming a part of an alumni network that’s really powerful and you can start to find that within groups that are interested in particular topics based all over the world that come together online to share information and create new knowledge. I think those kinds of things are happening naturally. So the question then becomes: how are we gonna value this knowledge if people have fewer certificates from accredited institutions? What is the accreditation system’s power? How does that start to change? So based on the knowledge you have opposed, from whom you receive that knowledge, I think becomes the question. Also, how we value those self-accreditations or third party accreditations that are not the traditional ones. I think that is part of the driver for all of this, the system that says what is valuable and recognized, and what is not. I think people are starting to change that because there are plenty of people who have skills in many different areas that they’ve acquired or learned online. People are willing to hire those people, they just don’t necessarily get paid as much and why not, if they’re really good at what they do? So I think that those are just questions that are going to be self-answered overtime just because it is not up to any one university or any one government anymore. Maybe that goes back to your earlier question of what was your salary history. Maybe there’s a similar question of what was your degree? Well maybe that becomes less important. What do you know? Not your experience, but what have you done? What do you know how to fix? How can you fix my problem? Because if you can fix my problem, why should I care if you have a degree or not if you can demonstrate your ability to fix my problem. Because again, I think those are the questions. What do we value and what do we ask for? And why? I don’t care about theory. If you can’t fix this problem, I don’t care about theory. I don’t care about your degree. If you can’t fix my problem, I’m going to hire someone else who can.

If you could have somebody else’s job for a day what would it be and why?

I can honestly say that I’ve never thought of that for myself. I wouldn’t trade. I love the job that I’m doing. I absolutely love the job that I’m doing. I get to create my own job. More people should be able to create their own job. So I don’t think I would trade with anyone. That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t do it for a day, because there’s a lot of exciting and interesting things that I would love to do, but it would be more for fun for a day. If I had the skills to do opera for a day, it would be amazing. And if I could work with elephants all day long or for a day, I would love to work with elephants for the day.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Be honest. Focus on the truth. It’s not easy. There’s also diplomacy in how you share truth, it has consequences. Do you want people to feel good and all of that? It’s good advice because it’s so hard.

What is your favorite book?

It is an autobiography of Gandhi. It’s so powerful and you’ll find that the key in there is truth. That’s all he was focused on was truth, shining a light on truth and the reality of things and changing it if it’s not working for the people.

What do you most value in friends?

I was gonna say honesty but that’s a little bit repetitive. I think love. At the end of the day we all want to be accepted for who we are and to be loved unconditionally. So unconditional love.

Which trait do you find most uncomfortable in yourself? In others?

I mean it’s funny because one of my biggest challenges is also my biggest strength and that’s that I get frustrated. I’m inpatient, that’s the word, being inpatient. So being inpatient is a huge challenge. It’s a huge frustration. But it’s also a driver. It means you’re not happy with how things are so you’re gonna work hard to change it because you’re so inpatient.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Being aggressive.

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