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Innovation represents one of the most potent methods for businesses to not just succeed but to succeed across multiple indicators including demand, market share, revenue, sales, and profits. The WEConnect International 2019 Conference in Nigeria Embracing Innovation for Business Success created the opportunity for Women Business Owners from around Nigeria to discuss the relationship between strategic innovation and the expansion of their businesses. With major support from ExxonMobil, WEConnect International brought together more than 250 female entrepreneurs, business leaders, speakers, stakeholders, procurement professionals, and media for a day of exciting presentations, vibrant panel discussions and insightful business connection sessions.  

ExxonMobil’s Judith Mbonu (Area Procurement Manager, Nigeria) spoke passionately about the partnership between ExxonMobil and WEConnect International and how this has translated into active mentoring and support for women-owned businesses while helping ExxonMobil achieve its own supplier diversity and inclusion goals. "The main objective of this partnership [with WEConnect International] is to identify opportunities for women to mentor other women, develop them, nurture them and continue to hold their hands and ensure that they not only grow but have sustainable businesses across the globe,” she pointed out. IFC’s Anne Kabugi (Gender Lead Africa) enlightened the participants on IFC’s work on economic inclusion for women, especially through its Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi). The keynote speaker for the day, Adebola Williams of Red Media Group and State Craft, challenged the women to remain open to innovative opportunities, never resting on their oars, but rather seeking new ways to create market opportunities through innovation. 

Two revealing panel discussions focused on Business Innovation Tools and how 21st Century Companies are using them and Innovation in My Business. The first inspired a lively and informative discussion around emerging innovation tools for small and medium-sized businesses, especially technological ones, and exploring the ways in which today’s successful corporations are applying these tools. The latter session, moderated by IFC’s Kabugi, provided insight more generally on the practicality of innovation, using vivid examples of experiences from the panelists – small and medium-sized business owners and business financiers – themselves.  

Patricia Langan, WEConnect International’s Regional Director for Africa and the Middle East, pointed out the importance and potential of closing the entrepreneurship gender gap in Nigeria.  With Africa’s largest economy, an estimated 40 percent of women run their own businesses in Nigeria. And they accomplish this despite high barriers to entry for women entrepreneurs compared to countries such as Uganda and Tanzania, according to the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurship. “It shows that in Nigeria, where there is a woman’s will, there is a way!” she said. “WEConnect International has ambitious plans for Nigeria,” she said and asked the participants to help meet the goal of doubling the number of women-owned businesses in the WEConnect International database by self-registering on the website

In the afternoon, attention shifted to the practical opportunities for women’s business enterprises to sell to a leading corporation in Nigeria -- ExxonMobil. ExxonMobil held a Meet the Buyer session with participating women businesses. With a strong delegation of buyers from ExxonMobil led by Judith Mbonu, conversations revolved around supplier opportunities available at ExxonMobil and practical advice on how participants could harness them. 

Other Speakers and Panellists presented at the event including Francesca Uriri (Regional Communications Head, East & West Africa, Uber), Onajite Emerhor (Launchpad Accelerator, Africa, Google), Michael Njoku (Consulting Partner, MCEE Solutions), Saudat Salami (CEO, EasyShop EasyCook Ltd), Subomi Plumptre (Executive Director, Alder Consulting), Afua Osei (She Leads Africa),  amongst others. 

The outgoing Country Director, Shade Ladipo, noted that women needed to stop being scared of innovation, technology, and change, pointing out that big risk comes with big change and most times big change wins. Ladipo also formally announced, after four productive years at the helm of WEConnect International, that she was transitioning leadership to Mr. Yeshua Russel as of September 2019.   Participants thanked Ladipo for her drive and accomplishments for women-owned businesses over the years, and Ladipo reassured the crowd that she stays committed to the mission. The new Market Lead for Nigeria Yeshua Russel predicted that the future for women-owned businesses in Nigeria was one that involved women taking more positive economic leadership positions, as they improved their thinking, capacity, and partnerships. 

The 2019 National Conference was an impressive success with registrations more than double the event capacity. A significant portion of participants were first-timers to a WEConnect International event, proving a strong interest in the organization’s work and activities in the region. Participants generally reported in the feedback survey that they were highly impressed with the event, learned an immense amount of useful strategies that they would apply to their business, and requested further information.