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Are trade missions worth the investment for women entrepreneurs? Trade missions explained

By: Kylie Adair

Penny Tremblay remembers the moment that changed the course of her business. She was on a trade mission led by PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprise, listening to a presentation by an organic, frozen vegetable company who said they’d done $80 million in sales in just a year. “I was just blown away,” she says. “It was a defining moment in my life. Holy smokes, if they can do 80 million in organic vegetables, how can I do a million or two — or 80?” 

Tremblay is a workplace mediator and author of Sandbox Strategies for the New Workplace who recently began putting together an export strategy for her services — and she credits trade missions in helping her shape this strategy.

Trade missions could similarly boost the success of many women entrepreneurs looking to export, but not without a solid understanding of how to make the most of these opportunities. 

What are trade missions?

A trade mission is an international trip meant to connect entrepreneurs with opportunities to do business with organizations in other countries. Trade missions have traditionally been organized by federal and provincial governments.

But some delegations are now organized by non-governmental organizations, often networks of women business owners. For example, WEConnect International, a global organization working to connect women business owners with companies to do business with, is organizing a Canadian delegation to attend the 2024 WBENC National Conference in Denver, Colorado. 

These women-focused conferences are also called supplier diversity conferences, any conference that helps corporations, well, diversify their suppliers. In other words, these events aim to connect business owners from underrepresented groups to potential buyers of their products and services — this is meant to help counteract the many years women and other marginalized groups haven’t had access to the same business and export opportunities as cisgender, white men. Many governments offer incentives to corporations to diversify their supply chains, too. 

Ultimately, trade missions can be a crucial entry point for an entrepreneur new to the world of exporting. “Don’t go to a big event in another country without first checking if somebody’s doing a trade mission that you can be a part of,” says Stephanie Fontaine, regional director for Canada and the U.S. at WEConnect International.

How can supplier diversity-focused trade missions help women entrepreneurs?

“Women should be on every trade mission,” says Marcela Mandeville, CEO of Alberta Women Entrepreneurs, an organization providing resources and support to Alberta-based women business owners. “Women should be at every table, having every business discussion, and making these decisions around how business opportunities flow.” 

Still, she believes there are key benefits trade missions focused specifically on women can offer, especially in connecting them to potential buyers who have specific mandates to include more women-owned businesses in their supply chains. 

Mandeville has been attending trade missions for over 20 years. “I fell in love with this idea of having a collective impact. A way to be organized, have the right meetings, have the right connections, get the on-the-ground support from various levels of government and organizations that really want to see Canadian businesses succeed,” she says. And when it comes to women-focused missions, that collective impact means creating “lasting memories” for buyers, getting women entrepreneurs on their radars. “There’s strength in numbers,” Mandeville says. 

How can you help a business owner prepare for a trade mission?

Trade missions are a big investment, often costing business owners in the several thousands in travel and accommodation, not to mention time away from the day-to-day of one’s business. To make the investment worth it, entrepreneurs should do their homework — before, during, and after the trip. 

Step one: Make sure the business has capacity to export 

While there can be some benefit to attending a trade mission just to learn about exporting opportunities and build an international network, Fontaine says those who get the most concrete value have crunched the numbers and know exactly the size of contracts they could fulfill under their current capacity. 

For instance, large corporations don’t typically offer deposits, so businesses must have enough cash to front production costs of any physical products offered, says Lise Blondin, who leads trade missions at Réseau des Femmes d’affaires du Québec, a network of Quebec-based women-owned businesses.

Step two: Research trade mission attendees 

One of the key ways to get the most out of a trade mission is to know who else will be there — and even to reach out ahead of time. Mandeville says many delegations offer online meetups before the trip, so entrepreneurs can connect with one another. “If you’ve done that research, if you had an introductory conversation, then when you see each other in person on the trade mission, it feels like you’ve been friends for 10 or 15 years already.” She adds that she’s often seen women entrepreneurs team up and work together on bids for contracts after meeting on trade missions. 

Step three: Follow up 

“You would not believe how many times I’ve talked to buyers after an event or a trade mission — and I would go through a list and say, ‘You met these 10 businesses. What happened? Do we have a success story here?’ And they tell me that person never followed up,” says Fontaine. Developing a plan for post-mission follow up with any new connections is vital. “It requires time and resources, but if they don’t they might lose the opportunity,” says Blondin. 

Fontaine says business owners can ask new contacts at events what information they’d like to receive as a follow up and when is a good time to be back in touch. They can then make a plan for follow ups, perhaps emailing when they have a new product or service to offer. 

That said, business owners shouldn’t expect instant success; it can take years to nurture a new business relationship. But the experience can be valuable enough. “It’s rare to walk out with a deal with a big corporate,” says Tremblay. “But the opportunity to sit and talk with them and have them ask you questions that really shape your thinking and how you run your business — that’s really valuable.”