When it comes to business, Minnesota is squarely in the big leagues.

Several Twin Cities women-owned firms set out to reiterate that this week as the Women's Business Enterprise National Council hosted its annual conference in Minneapolis for the first time.

"So many times, people feel like Minnesota's a flyover," said Jennifer Smith, CEO of Burnsville-based Innovative Office Solutions. "No, we have so much to offer."

The three-day conference — which ran Tuesday through Thursday — aimed to connect women-owned businesses with the area's Fortune 500 companies that want supplier diversity.

Smith's company was one of nine local women-owned businesses at the center of attention at the Minneapolis Convention Center on Wednesday, as each company got to display its brands and interact with potential business partners.

Smith showed off products she sells to offices, schools and stadiums. She encouraged visitors to sit on a lime-green ergonomic chair and gave out Scotch tape dispensers in the shape of red high heels.

"I love that women are so good at networking together," Smith said. "It's so fun to see if you can share best practices."

She said the conference also helps with one of her biggest challenges as a business owner: hiring talent.

"I've already made a connection with someone who wants to move to Minnesota, and they'd be perfect in one of my departments," she said.

Many Twin Cities Fortune 500 companies were sponsors of this year's conference, which attracted 350 exhibitors from around the country and 3,000 people.

General Mills brought the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Honey Nut Cheerios bee to have their pictures taken with business owners, while Target had a large space with a fluffy red carpet and a makeover station. Other local sponsors included Cargill, Best Buy, 3M and U.S. Bank.

"Diversity is much more than a goal or campaign at Target — it's a core value we integrate into every area of our business," Target spokeswoman Jessica Stevens said in an e-mail. "Women make up a majority of our workforce and are well-represented in our leadership ranks."

Lili Hall, president and CEO of Knock, a Minneapolis-based branding and design company, got to be "out there" for the first time at the event. She's attended the conference for several years, but this is the first year she's had a booth.

"We've never exhibited anywhere," Hall said.

She's such a pro that she gave a talk teaching other visitors how to make the most of the event — like chat up the people waiting in line at booths, do research before the pitch and focus efforts on a few companies.

"It's really intimidating when you first come to these events," Hall said. "You don't know anyone and you're not connected. … [But] the great thing about this environment is there's a huge sense of camaraderie."

Caren Schweitzer, president of Minneapolis-based Creative Resources, said one of her favorite aspects of the conference is getting to support other women-owned businesses. "That's the beauty of the [Women's Business Enterprise] certification," she said. "It brings us together under one roof. There's a level of trust."

Schweitzer, whose company creates branded products for companies, also took the opportunity to reconnect with clients. Creative Resources helped create bags for Target, one of the co-sponsors of the conference. The totes showed off city skylines for the retailer's urban stores.

"We are really, really lucky to have the corporate background that we do in Minnesota," Schweitzer said.

Cargill's director of supplier diversity, John Taylor, said the event is always "a great chance for a dialogue." One of the company's top 10 global suppliers, Women's Distribution Services, was represented at the conference.

"Cargill is a longtime supporter of WBENC," Taylor said. "We see this as a great opportunity to meet phenomenal women-owned businesses."

Hall said that even though the conference is exhausting — she's on her feet, in heels, all day — she leaves it each year feeling re-energized about her work.

Usually, "you're so down in the trenches, working on the day-to-day," she said. "Here you can really come up for air."

Celia Ampel • 612-673-4642