Countless women have the ideas and potential to become business owners, but many of them lack the tools. Through events, workshops and training programs, Linda Spradley Dunn’s Odyssey Media helps multicultural women get questions answered and find like minds.
“Coca-Cola has made a point … of finding women that can be suppliers to them,” Spradley Dunn says. They sought help from Odyssey, which runs programs aimed at boosting women’s economic empowerment and focuses especially on women across minority backgrounds.
These women often straddle two worlds. “We’re women, and we’re small business owners, and we’re very excited about that,” Spradley Dunn says. “But we also are African American, Latina ... it brings its own nuances.” She has led discussions on everything from whether one should change a name for the sake of assimilation to embarking on a business as a single mom.
Odyssey provides a safe space to talk about issues that wouldn’t come up elsewhere. “One of my Latina friends talks about being accent-free,” she says. “that just never occurs to the majority of people … These kind of issues affect you when you’re asking for money, when you’re presenting yourself.”
Spradley Dunn spent 14 years rising up the ranks in sales at IBM before deciding to go out on her own. The training she got there was invaluable, she says, and by the time she left, she was a natural at networking and building client rapport: “Who teaches that to you anymore? Very few places.”
The business retreat she helped found 18 years ago to discuss those and other issues is still going strong. Though similar events have proliferated since then, Spradley Dunn says, Odyssey Media thrives because “we are a community—not one product, but a community.”
Odyssey had developed a successful program for Coca-Cola aimed at women who had advanced degrees and a background in corporate America and wanted to strike out on their own. But she knew she could be reaching more people, so she began a division called Impact Odyssey to help others who might have less education or work experience. The events covered topics such as starting a business as a single mother and how to open a restaurant.
“We would show up and there would be hundreds of women waiting for us at a community center or a local college,” she says, and there would be “tears—literally tears—about getting this information.”
The different programs are part of Coke’s effort to meet people where they are, which is also reflected in the company’s 5by20 effort to empower 5 million women entrepreneurs around the world by 2020.
“We don’t market to everyone as if it’s just a big group of women,” Spradley Dunn says of Odyssey’s events. “You have to tier culturally. You have to tier it based on economics and where you are in the country.”
The challenge for Coke and other companies, she says, is that even the best supplier training won’t necessarily close a deal. At a large company with an open bidding process, minority suppliers can still face challenges getting to the final sale.
Yet the more companies understand the value of diversity, the better off they are. “Diversity equals profit,” Spradley Dunn says, noting that as the demographics of the country change, companies that are ahead of the curve in reflecting that will benefit.
What struck her about the experience at Coke was the supplier diversity team’s willingness to listen and tailor programs to cultivate suppliers. “They didn’t sit in a room and say, we’re going to make up this great program and suppliers are going to come,” Spradley Dunn says. “They said, who are the leaders in the small business community? Who has street cred with suppliers that can let them understand that we’re open for business? And I really applaud them for doing that.”