women owned small businesses

By Rieva Lesonsky

Princess Diana was a style icon, “Seinfeld” ruled the airwaves and we were just learning our way around the Information Superhighway, aka the World Wide Web (using Netscape Navigator as our favorite browser). The year was 1994, and the federal government had just set a goal of ensuring that at least 5 percent of federal contracts were awarded to women-owned small businesses.

Well, it took more than 20 years, but in 2015, the government finally reached that goal, awarding 5.05 percent of contracts to women-owned small businesses. Now, 5 percent doesn’t sound like much, does it? Especially when you consider that women-owned businesses account for 36.3 percent of all U.S. businesses, that women employ some 8.4 million U.S. workers, and that the rate of women’s business ownership has increased by nearly 27 percent in the past five years. In Washington, DC (prime ground for federal contractors), nearly half (45 percent) of businesses are owned by women. Last year, the federal government awarded 25.75 percent of contracts to small businesses in general—a record high.

Given these figures, why has reaching even 5 percent of all federal contracts taken so long? There are many answers to that question, but small business owners don’t look back — they look ahead. As Small Business Administration (SBA) administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet said in announcing the goal, “Meeting this longstanding contracting goal means 5 percent is no longer our ceiling but our foundation upon which to build.”

To go beyond 5 percent, more women-owned small businesses need to aim for federal contracts. If you’re interested, what can you do to boost your chances?

Know how the system works. The federal government sets aside a certain percentage of federal contracts for Women Owned Small Businesses (WOSBs). In addition to being at least 51 percent owned and controlled by women, your business must also meet size and other standards to be eligible to compete for WOSB set-asides. Learn more about the WOSB program.

Get help. Last year, my small business finally completed the lengthy process of getting certified as a Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE). To say that it was challenging would be an understatement, and we couldn’t have done it without the help of a lot of outside resources. Fortunately, there are myriad sources that can help you decide whether federal contracting is right for you, find opportunities and successfully bid for them.

The SBA offers tons of government contracting resources, training programs, online courses, certifications and more to help women-owned small businesses navigate all the steps involved in working with the federal government. Visit the Government Contracting Classroom for more information.

The SBA also has Procurement Center Representatives (PCRs) in six offices across the U.S. you can contact for additional assistance with federal contracting opportunities.

Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP), American Express OPEN and the SBA have a program called ChallengeHER that provides events, education and webinars to help women compete for government contracts using the Women Owned Small Business (WOSB) set-aside program. There are events for both newbies and more experienced entrepreneurs; whichever level you are at, you’ll have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with federal government buyers.

Thanks to the findings of a report commissioned by Contreras-Sweet, the number of North American Classification System (NAICS) groups designated as part of the WOSB program is being expanded, which will mean more opportunities for women-owned small businesses to take part in federal contracting. If you’ve ever been interested in working with the federal government, there’s never been a better time.