Pursuing government-recognized certification as a small, women-owned or other specially designated business can be daunting for many entrepreneurs. Tara Olson understands that mindset. Along with her business partner, Sherrie Aycock, Olson recently pursued certification for AllPoints Research, her Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based market research firm. “You have to be very focused when going after contracts with the federal government,” says Olson. “It can be a very big challenge.”
For the past several years, Olson’s firm has partnered with Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP) to conduct research on women, the economy and government contracting. Along with American Express OPEN, WIPP established Give Me 5: Education and Access for Women in Federal Contracts to help more women win government contracts. The Give Me 5 program (giveme5.com) helps women-owned businesses address a few common obstacles, such as the following.
Obstacle: The procurement process seems intimidating. In an economic impact study that Olson conducted for WIPP last year, respondents said they’re aware that federal contracts are available for women-owned businesses, but they’re daunted by getting into the business. “They’re seeing the dollars trickling down to their states and communities, but they can’t figure out how to access them,” says Olson.
Strategy for success: Familiarize yourself with government agencies and procedures. Give Me 5 offers a comprehensive program of training and education for women who want to pursue federal procurement opportunities. Olson says the program has been “wildly successful” in helping women understand how to get started, including making connections with local officials in the Small Business Administration and Procurement Technical Assistance Centers. “You’re still dealing with an alphabet soup of agencies,” says Olson. “But once you understand the different roles these offices play, you can start to see where you fit in and where you can go for help.”
Obstacle: Successful government contracting requires giving up some control. According to Olson, some 80 percent of women-owned businesses are sole proprietorships. But pursuing certification—not to mention actually fulfilling a federal contract—takes more time and resources than one woman can handle on her own while running the rest of her business. Many women entrepreneurs have a hard time delegating such an important initiative, says Olson. “A lot of women go into whatever business they’re running because they love what they do, and they have a vision for how their product or service is going to be implemented,” she says. “I think it’s difficult for women to delegate that out.”
Strategy for success: Accept that you’re simply not going to be able to handle every task yourself. For example, Olson and Aycock have realized that they don’t have the time to market their General Services Administration contract on their own. They’re considering options ranging from engaging a consultant to hiring an employee with expertise in this arena. “We need some help, and we’re okay with admitting that,” says Olson.
Obstacle: You may need to team with another business to pursue contracts more effectively. “You read about teaming all the time, but it’s a tough nut to crack,” says Olson. “How do you find those other businesses, and once you find them, how do you work together?”
Strategy for success: Look for qualified businesses that already do government work. For example, rather than encouraging female entrepreneurs to pursue certification so she might partner with them in the future, Olson looks for potential partners through WIPP conferences and events. The women she meets there are already government contractors, meaning they’re essentially Olson’s peers when it comes to pursuing federal business. “Teaming is another area where groups like WIPP and programs like Give Me 5 can be extremely helpful,” she says.
Pursuing certification is an enormous task. But organizations such as WIPP offer entrepreneurs support and education in the form of webinars, newsletters and networking events. By taking advantage of these resources, entrepreneurs can overcome the obstacles they face and make progress in their pursuit of federal contracts.