Women hope SBA rule improves business

By Danielle Douglas
Monday, February 7, 2011

Despite winning federal contracts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and State Department, Kathleen M. Benson, president of Office Remedies in Herndon, still struggles to obtain agency business for her research firm.

"If there are companies that are larger but still have the small business certification, they have a competitive advantage because they have more resources," she said.

In a highly competitive space dominated by large companies, women-owned small businesses like Benson's can have a hard time getting a foot in the door. As a remedy, the Small Business Administration implemented a new rule to set aside government contracts for women-owned small businesses in 83 industries.

Since it was introduced last October, dozens of organizations have held symposiums to parse through the program. With the guidelines released last Friday, there will be many more workshops in the coming weeks, including one hosted by the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority on Feb. 23.

The fervor surrounding the new program is palpable, especially since it took more than 15 years and a lawsuit to launch. Advocates see the program as a way for the federal government to finally meet its goal of awarding 5 percent of contracting dollars to women-owned small businesses, which it has never achieved.

"This is going to benefit a good percentage of women," said Ana Recio Harvey, the SBA's assistant administrator for women's business ownership.

Eligibility is contingent upon being 51 percent owned and controlled by women, having citizenship and meeting SBA size standards. Women-owned small businesses can upload documentation, such as tax returns or articles of incorporation, to self-certify or use an SBA-approved third party.

Companies must also update their status on two contracting systems that should be ready by April. Around the same time, the SBA hopes to have a companion rule, the Federal Acquisition Regulation, in place. Once that is completed, the agency anticipates the first awards will roll out in the fourth quarter.

"This opens doors, but it's up to contracting officers on the buying side and women business owners on the vendors' side to really use the program," said Judy Bradt, chief executive of the contract consulting firm Summit Insight.

Having obtained certification as a small and disadvantaged business, Jennifer D. Collins, president of the Event Planning Group in Bethesda, considers herself well versed on the set-aside process. She is eager to take advantage of the new program, but questions what impact the shrinking federal budget will have.

"Agencies are working with less than they have before," she said. "There is always a discussion about how something is going to be competed; I just hope in that discussion there is going to be consideration for the program."

Some advocates have bristled at the size of the contracts, which are worth no more than $3 million for services and $5 million for manufacturing, while others take issue with the number of industries included in the program.

"There are still quite a few women-owned businesses that have been left out," said Margot Dorfman, chief executive of the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce. "Any opportunities that women have to access contracts is a good thing . . . but this [program] has a ways to go."

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