Small Business Administration chief Karen Mills has a few items left on her agenda before she steps down from her appointed post and President Obama’s cabinet — one of which is helping women-owned small businesses secure more federal contracts.
The SBA, in partnership with D.C.-based public policy organization Women Impacting Public Policy and American Express OPEN, the credit card company’s small business division, recently launched an initiative to boost female contractors in the federal space.
The program, called “ChallengeHER,” features a series of events and workshops nationwide, including upcoming sessions in Washington highlighting opportunities at the Department of Energy and the Department of Health and Human Services.
“When we came into this job more than four years ago, the women-owned small business world was languishing,” Mills said. “We want to make sure women-owned small businesses, which traditionally have not had the access and the networks [to be successful contractors], to be in the competition.”
This initiative comes after the National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law in January 2013, removed caps on federal contracting for women-owned small businesses — previously, awards to women-owned small businesses couldn’t exceed $6.5 million for manufacturing contracts and $4 million for all others. In 2011, the SBA launched an effort to help federal agencies meet a national goal of awarding five percent of contracting dollars to women-owned small businesses, a goal that has not yet been met.
The latest initiative intends to connect women business owners to contracting opportunities and educate them about the procurement process — including filling out paperwork — as well as connect entrepreneurs to each other.
“When you have not as big a number of women in that space, you don’t have the networking and trade organizations and groups to belong to that really support the initiative. Putting them together is important,” said Barbara Kasoff, president and chief executive of WIPP.
Lisa Firestone, president and chief executive of Managed Care Advisors, a worker’s compensation and disability management specialist consulting firm in Bethesda, was at a launch event for the initiative. Eighty-five percent of Managed Care Advisors’ work comes from government contracts, but she said she sometimes finds it challenging to win them.
“The obvious challenge is the ability to compete with big integrators, Firestone said. Competitors “are often more established, and the biggest barrier for [federal clients] is risk,” meaning they can be uncomfortable steering work to firms that don’t have an extensive track record.