Nearly a decade after the Nixon administration began its modest enterprise, the federal government is beginning to pay attention to women in business.
Last year's establishment of a government of a government task force to study the problems of women in business, a new campaign by the Small Business Administration to help women get into business and a federal drive to find female business owners to share in railroad revitalization contracting are regarded by some women entrepreneurs as quantum steps.
The controversy still continues, howere, over proposals that minority men and white women - along with veterans - share a fragment of the $80 billion in procurements the government sets aside each year for "socially and economically disadvantage" firms. Monority businessmen say these contracts, along with the Small Business Adminstration's direct loans and guarantees, will have to balloon to make any impact on their growth.
Businesswomen, howere, maintain that the government contracts for enough supplies and services to accommodate them as well.
For years, monority entrepreneurs have regarded the efforts fo the government to encourage black capitalism as miniscule. And government procurement officers say black businessmen bristele at the suggestion that white women should share in special government contracting programs, The issue is currently being studied within the government.
But by 1976, the first federal effort to insure that female business owners share in a f+deral project - the contruction of the Alaska oil pipeline - had lead to more than $90 million in contracts for businesswomen, an unprecedented amount, the Interior Department said.Minority business participation was a major focus of the $480 million project.
This year, the Transportation Department is gearing up to help businesswomen and minority businessmen participate in the $6 billion maintenance and revitalization of the nation's railroads.
But black, Hispanic, Asian and Indian entrepreneurs, who owned about 4 per cent of this country's businesses as of 1974, and women of all races, who were reported to own 4.6 per cent of the firms in that year's review, continue to share many of the same problems in establishing and maintaining businesses: lack of experience, capitalization and major contracts. The vast majority of firms owned by women and minority males are sole priorietorships or mom-and-pop stores with poverty-level earnings, according to government figures.
While statistics remain years out of date, women business leaders and the Small Business Administration report that in recent years a groundswell of interest has developed among women who want to go into business - women who seek SBA counselling orbaccked loans. In a recent 15-month period, some 96,000 went through SBA managemnet training programs and 23,500 came in for one-to-one business counseling, compared with 49,500 at seminars and 13,500 who came for counseling ina previous 12-month period.
New equal credit opportunity laws are expected to help women secure financing - although, as SBA women's programs director Barbara B. Dunn points out, "Very few traditional lending institutions will finance the start of a new business unless you have collateral to start." Women who have not established credit ratings or have backgrounds in managerial skills will continue to have trouble finding venture capital, business owners note.
The half-dozen women's banks in business around the country make it a point to offer special seminares and counseling to women interested in starting businesses. Sally S. Buck, president of Womensbank in Richmond, said her institution has spent as much as 10 hours on some buciness loans to women because they need basic business advice, such as how to set up books.
Following up on a campaign pledge, the Carter administration has appointed a new interagency task force to study the problems facing women in business. As part of a national women's business ownership campaign, SBA earmarked $100 million for loan guarantees for women during the first quarter of fiscal 1978, compared with $168 million approved for female applicants during all fiscal 1976.
The President has also revived an interagency task force on minority business developement and pledged to double the federal government's procurement from minority-owned firms to some $1 billion by the 1979-80 fiscal year.
But the special set-aside program of government contrasts administered by SBA was suspended for several months in 1977 following hearings that underscored what many minority busnessmen had know for several years: that their white counterparts ere circumventing the rules to participate in the program. The set-aside program was found to have channeled only about $1.5 million in contracts to minority-run companies.
The SBA remains opposed to extending its description of "socially and economically disadvantage" ot include women in the special contracting program, despite such a recommendation by the U.S. Civil Rights COmmission. Marilyn Andrulis, who was admitted to the program and was dropped after she had secured some $630,000 in defense contracts, is currently suing the agency.
Dona O'Bannon, president of the National Association of Women Business Owners, maintains that the "8(a)" set-aside program can easily accommodate women. Some $65 million in 8(a) contracts were returned to the Defense Department alone in fiscal 1975 because qualified minority firms could not be found, he said.
The commerce Department's Office of Minority Business Enterprise, the government office charged with fostering the growth of black capitalism, also remains opposed to including white women in its programs. OMBE's $50 million annual budget, smallest for a government agency of its size, is slated for an increase to $62 million in the federal spending proposal the adminstration has sent to the Hill.
OMBE Director Randolph Blackwell said his agency is helping fund projects during the coming year that will demonstrate the minority businesses can help attack the problem of black youth unemployment - such as multi-city tee-shirt manufacturing operation set up by fomer football player Roosevelt Grier - and employment of the elderly, in projects such as the raising of rabbits for institutional menus.
The current major area of hope for minority firms, the 10 per cnet set-aside for such businesses mandated in the Public Works Employment Act, has survived several court challenges extended by Congress for a second year. Problems of minority firms in being bonded for contracting work loom so large that some contractors groups feel their mwmbers will not even be able to participate in this year's work.
Howere, 19 per cent of the public works contracts went to minority-owned firms by the end of December, the National Association of Minority Contractors said.
Challenges of the public works requirement by white contractors in 15 Federal Court suits, along with "other attempts to undermine federal minority business assistance programs," have helped add up to a "disturbing year" for black entrepreneurs, in the opinion of Berkeley Burrell, a national black business leader.
Women and minority men in business acknowledge that the major source of procurement business is the private sector, which does six times as much business as the government.
One corporation that has expanded its affirmative action vendor program to include women is Equitable Life Assurance Society. But like other major corporations, it had trouble identifying women-owned firms to do business with. It gave the National Assoication of Women Business Owners money to compile the country's first such directory - covering the Washington-Baltimore region.
The association is assembling a national directory to assist the Transportation Department in the awarding of contracts in railroad-related work.
Sears, Reobuck, which says it did more than $33 million is business with firms owned by women in fiscal 1976 (a fraction of 1 per cnet of the corporation's precurement), plans to set up an affirmative action vendor program of its own when the national directory of women is compiled.