For the first time in history, the U.S. government has awarded 5 percent of federal government contracting dollars to women-owned small businesses—a big achievement for both the government and the approximately 9.4 million women-owned small businesses across the country.
According to government website USASpending.gov, the government purchased more than $430 billion in goods and services from the private sector in 2015. The government-wide goal is that 5 percent of those dollars, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), should go to women-owned small businesses—a goal that was put in place as part of the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994 and led to the creation of the Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) Federal Contract Program in the Equity in Contracting for Women Act of 2000. For the past 14 years, the government has not been able to meet that mandate, but in FY2015, it succeeded.
"We're witnessing [this] for the first time ever in history," says Lourdes Martin-Rosa, founder and president of Government Business Solutions and American Express® OPEN Advisor on Government Contracting.
Martin-Rosa credits two government initiatives with helping to achieve the 5 percent goal. In February 2011, the SBA launched the Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program, which allows agencies to set aside contracts specifically for women-owned small businesses.
In May 2013, the Obama administration lifted caps on the size of these set-aside contracts for women-owned small businesses. At the time, qualifying contracts were limited to a maximum of $4 million, or $6.5 million for manufacturing contracts.
How Outreach and Education Can Help
In addition to these government initiatives, Martin-Rosa also credits outreach and educational programs with being instrumental to achieving the goal.
One of these educational programs is Give Me Five, which is named after the 5 percent goal. American Express OPEN and nonpartisan public policy group Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP) formed the Give Me Five program in 2008 to educate women business owners about how to secure federal contracting opportunities. The program offers training and resources to help business owners learn how to compete for federal contracting dollars.
Since 2013, American Express OPEN and WIPP along with the SBA have facilitated the ChallengeHER program, which provides government contracting education, resources and networking opportunities to women-led enterprises through content and events across the country.
"The education forums, the events and the access that [ChallengeHER] gives you to government agencies is absolutely priceless," says Elizabeth Roemer, CEO of Roemer Industries.
Roemer's company, which manufactures and designs products for the health care industry, made contact with the U.S. Navy through a session at the 2014 ChallengeHER San Diego event and was able to turn the session into a contract and subsequent referrals, Roemer says.
Danielle Gosthe, CEO of Red Carrot, an integrative management and marketing agency, became acquainted with government contracting after attending an American Express OPEN workshop in 2012. Gosthe says she went to the event to learn about what opportunities were out there for her small business.
"I took all the materials they had. I read the material several times and started doing research. I ... tried to learn as much as I could about contracting,” Gosthe says. “I went to two or three American Express OPEN [events] before I even put out a bid."
In 2014, two years after she began researching and learning, Gosthe submitted her first bid for a government project. She didn't win, but she kept trying, and in 2015, won her first federal contract with the U.S. Army National Guard, she says.
Getting Involved in Government Contracting
If you're a small-business owner interested in working with the government, there are a few things you can keep in mind to help you succeed.
1. Maintain the right mindset.
Gosthe recommends that women business owners who want to enter the contracting field remain persistent.
"The road to success is oftentimes bumpy, and you may fail numerous times before you break through. Persistence is key," she says.
She also recommends establishing a variety of motivating benchmarks.
"You should set short- and long-term achievable goals," she says, "and surround yourself with smart and dedicated people."
2. Find liaisons.
Roemer says one of the biggest surprises came from finding out that there are federal employees whose position is solely to assist small-business owners.
"I was really surprised to find out how many liaisons you have inside the federal government who are there to help you," she says.
She recommends identifying your allies within the government agencies and developing face-to-face relationships with them.
3. Attend events.
Martin-Rosa recommends attending educational events such as workshops, conferences and networking events. She says both the OPEN for Government Contracting events and the ChallengeHER events are valuable resources.
"The caliber of women who come to these events is amazing," Roemer says. "We walk away from these events with a newfound confidence and immeasurable excitement."
For more government contracting resources, visit openforum.com/governmentcontracts.
Photo: Christopher Lane