5 Steps Toward Success with Federal Contracts for Women-Owned Small Businesses

01/26/2024
By Georgina To’a Salazar, PhD

Government clients are major buyers of goods and services from small businesses and are reliable sources of revenue for them. However, a 2021 Small Business Administration (SBA) report on small firms owned by women pointed out that one of the largest hurdles they face is difficulty obtaining government contracts. The report attributed this difficulty to a variety of factors, including potential discrimination, lack of knowledge about or interest in government contracting, and limited access to government and business networks.

The good news is that federal and state governments have programs to increase equity for women-owned small businesses (WOSBs), boosting their likelihood of success. Women interested in participating in such programs, however, must pursue certification and can do so through organizations including the Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE) program or the SBA’s own Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program.

The primary benefit of the latter program is gaining access to competition for contracts called setasides, which the government reserves for small businesses, as well as access to sole source contracts—those that a single supplier is allowed to fulfill noncompetitively—in industries where WOSBs are underrepresented. Jennifer Reineke Pohlhaus, PhD, COO at Ripple Effect, explains the advantages of participating in the certification process. Dr. Pohlhaus, who won a 2023 AWIS Zenith Award for her innovative achievements and commitment to workplace diversity in STEM, touts her company’s decision to participate in the SBA WOSB program: “Getting SBA-certified as a WOSB sets our company apart from others that might only have [women] in senior leadership roles but not [in company ownership roles] of at least 51%.  In our case, Ripple Effect is owned by two women—founder and majority owner Amy Bielski, in addition to me—and we are also in the two most senior roles with the company. As we continued to search for and apply for opportunities with the federal government, we [saw that] … some funding opportunities were restricted to WOSBs who are SBA-certified, so ultimately that was the deciding factor for us [in getting certified ourselves].”

Another small-business owner, Marina Damiano, PhD, owner and communications strategist at Damiano Group Scientific Communications: “I sought WOSB certification on the advice of my wonderful business mentor from the SCORE program. I had to apply to become a government contractor in order to do business with a national laboratory. My SCORE mentor advised me on the benefits of certification, including set-asides or contracts specifically reserved for fulfillment by WOSBs. From there, she connected me with an SBA advisor specifically focused on government contracting, who helped me with the process.”

If you wish to follow the advice of these enterprising businesswomen, the following steps can help you participate successfully in the SBA WOSB Federal Contracting Program.

Step 1: Check for Eligibility

To be eligible for WOSB certification, your business must meet several criteria, including:

  • It must be at east 51% owned and controlled by one or more women who are U.S. citizens (born or naturalized).
  • It must be a small business, as defined by the Small Business Administration (SBA).
  • It must be for-profit and located in the United States.

 

You can get a preliminary assessment of whether or not you qualify through the program’s home page.

Step 2: Prepare Documentation

Essential documents needed for certification include:

  • proof of ownership and control, such as business licenses, articles of incorporation, and bylaws;
  • personal financial information from the woman or women who own and control the business; and
  • business financial information, such as tax returns and profit and loss statements.

 

The SBA provides a complete checklist on its website.

Step 3: Submit the SBA Application

For the initial application to the WOSB Federal Contract Program, you must use the WOSB.Certify.sba.gov website. The following SBA-approved ThirdParty Certifiers can later recertify you for a fee:

 

Government certifications have historically been onerous, requiring the collection and submission of myriad documents. Recent changes made to the WOSB application process now make it easier for qualified small businesses to participate.

Ripple Effect’s Dr. Pohlhaus shares tips from her own experience on the WOSB application process: “The first time we applied, it was right after the SBA changed the system, and our application seemed to have gotten ’stuck’ in the process. We sent in multiple help-desk tickets, and eventually someone was able to reset our application so that we could submit it a second time. We also submitted the LinkedIn versions of our résumés, but the SBA wanted more details, so we had to go back and make sure we had a full CV/résumé to upload. I would suggest that anyone going through this process [prepare] to invest the time in having a detailed résumé from the get-go.”

Dr. Damiano, in discussing her own impressions of the process, says: “It has been some time since I first applied, but I don’t remember the processing time being too long, definitely less than a year. But that can be long, depending on your business timelines. One challenge is navigating the online certification system. But, and I say this with all respect, you have to go into government forms or into any long application process with a patient mindset. If you have that, it will be much easier to navigate the process.

“In terms of usefulness, it would be helpful if it were easier to apply for WOSB certification at all levels of government at one time. Right now, I believe you have to apply separately at the federal, state, and county levels. I know that federal certification does not grant you state or county certification.

“I recommend that anyone interested in becoming a government contractor or in applying for WOSB or any other certifications work with their local APEX Accelerator for help. There are advisors who can help you navigate the process.”

Step 4: Finding Government Contracting Opportunities

Once you complete your certification application, you should celebrate! Then, when you actually earn certification for your business, it will be time for you to review databases to identify specific federal government contract opportunities:

  • SAM.gov—Search the largest database of federal contracting opportunities, and sort by options that include federal organizations and WOSB Program Set-Asides.
  • Forecast of Contracting Opportunities Tool—As you plan, search for upcoming nationwide federal contracting opportunities.
  • SubNet—Search an SBA database of opportunities for small companies that wish to serve as subcontractors.

 

While the government is required to post contracts over $25,000 to SAM.gov, individual government organizations, such as those in the Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services, may have other contract opportunities listed on their websites too. So, it’s important to review the websites of any government organizations that your business might serve.

Step 5: Leverage Networks to Build Readiness for Contracting

Qualifying to apply for federal contracting opportunities can help you combat the barrier of discrimination. You can use your WOSB certification as a self-marketing tool to overcome barriers to government and business networks. Your certification will give you access not only to members of your existing networks and to general business networks with contracting experience, but also access to other businesses who bid on government contracts and need subcontractors. One woman business owner, for example, reported success in obtaining subcontracts through SAM.gov from previous collaborators at academic institutions.

As a subcontractor, you will join teams that work together to prepare contract bids. In the process, you will build the skills you need for federal contracting opportunities, such as:

  • understanding the contract statement of work;
  • identifying work that makes sense for your business;
  • estimating the time and budget required to deliver goods and services that meet accepted standards;
  • collecting resources necessary to complete a contract; and
  • improving relationships with customers to strengthen your business reputation.

 

Taking the Plunge

You can expand opportunities for your WOSB by working through federal government contracting. However, you may waste a lot of time trying to get started with this process if you don’t approach it in a step-bystep fashion and if you ignore the importance of certification. Earning your SBA WOSB certification can help improve your chances. Seek guidance from members of your network who already have contracting experience, and their help will allow you to identify the resources that you need to address setbacks on your journey. As Dr. Damiano asserts: “WOSB certification is very attractive to the government, especially if the contract is set aside for a WOSB. It’s also attractive to industry, which has supplier diversity commitments, and is helpful in getting more reasonable payment terms. It’s also a selling point for subcontracting with organizations that are funded by the government.”

Similarly, Dr. Pohlhaus describes the specific and general impact of certification and government contracts on her business: “Nearly all of Ripple Effect’s clients are from various parts of the federal government, so having the certification is very important to us. We have been able to compete and win set-aside contract opportunities that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to compete for. Subcontractors who have the certification can also use [this status] as a differentiator because the prime contractor will know that you are able to navigate government systems, which can be a skill set in itself!”

Additional Resources

Select AWIS articles on entrepreneurship and starting a business:

 

Georgina To’a Salazar, PhD,Georgina To’a Salazar, PhD, works to create innovative solutions in science communication, research, and policy. With a BS in chemical engineering from Stanford University and a PhD in biomedical engineering from the University of California, Irvine, Dr. Salazar has fulfilled her dream of exploring the world, having taken research positions in Singapore and Japan before returning to the United States to focus on science communication. She is currently at Takara Bio USA, Inc.

This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.