Experts say that getting certified is a great business opportunity for women. Entrepreneurs who qualify can access portfolio-growing government and private-sector projects by plugging into a certification program for woman-owned businesses. It takes some know-how and effort, but the payoff can be worth it.
"Certification can certainly make a difference for owners," said LaKesha White, senior certification program manager for the Women's Business Enterprise National Council.
Her organization is one of several that can help businesswomen navigate the process. Once a company is certified, White said, the council seeks to connect its owners with clients. (They refer to the certified business as a Women's Business Enterprise, or a WBE.)
"The owner’s profile is included in our national database which is available to our nearly certified WBEs and corporate members for business searches," said White. "WBEs are also given the opportunity to take part in matchmaking meetings at the national and regional level."
In addition to organizations like the council, city, state and federal agencies—and also public corporations—regularly set aside a certain amountof the work for which they contract so that they can employ woman-owned businesses.
There are rules, however, about who can get at that work, and decisions to be made about exactly what kind of certification to seek.
Women business owners who seek certification must be U.S. citizens who control more than 50 percent of their company. In general, companies seeking the stamp of approval should be six months old, experts recommend.
Where to apply
At what level should a given company certify? The answer very much depends on what kind of goals are in play, what of kind of projects the business owner is looking to take on.
Consider Local Delivery Now, a fictional woman-owned package delivery service. LDN is looking to plug into the town halls and municipal departments of communities in its area. In that case, there's probably no reason to get certified nationally. The regional delivery outfit should certify at the state level. If, on the other hand, the business were Coast to Coast Overnight, it would probably make sense to go for the national stamp. Third-party organizations such as the Women's Business Enterprise National Council can help, and there is also the National Women Business Owners Corporation.
What is needed
The application process focuses primarily on history of the business and its financials. While the specifics set by organizations and agencies can differ, the following list will get most applicants a long way toward generating the typically called-for documentation:
- Tax returns: Typically required are the most recently filed return and also the previous two years' paperwork, together with all schedules.
- Other financial information: Balance sheets, profits and loss statements from the last three years. Rentals, leases, purchased and/or borrowed items and monies over the past three years…all that paperwork should be in one place for the application.
- Internal business documents: Chiefly, what's wanted is a list of employees, positions, and all all of their W-2 and 1099 forms. Most applications will require the most recent month of payroll data as well.
- External business data: Records of consultants hired, contractors or any similar help that is not part of the payroll itself. Also, records regarding any affiliates or subsidiary businesses.
The type of business matters in the application process. A sole proprietor, that's one thing. A partnership or a corporation, that's yet another. Owners can narrow what's likely to be needed further by consulting the business-type specific menu posted at the Women's Business Enterprise National Council's website. Again, applications vary, but their list is a good start.
Tools that can help
Experts acknowledge that the application process can look like a lot of work, especially as the deadline approaches.
"I recommend that recruiting a volunteer, perhaps a college intern, to assist with the compiling of documents," White said, adding that: "It is critical to do the research and determine what certifications would best fit the company and tackle them all at once, since many require the same documentation."
There are also commercial options when it comes to assistance. The National Women Business Owners Corporation sells a kit, for example, tailored to different business types, intended to streamline the steps. And then, said White, it's a matter of hard work and aggregation.
"The owner must have realistic expectations when starting the process," she said. "If they come in with the mind-frame that the certification will have companies lining up to conduct business with them, they have set themselves up for failure. For most companies, it takes three to five to build the relationships needed that eventually lead to contracts."
James O'Brien is a correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Consumer Chronicle, and Boston University's Research magazine. James blogs via Contently.com.
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