The year was 1964.
Louise Woerner had just been graduated at the top of her class, with a bachelor's degree in business administration from Trinity University in San Antonio, a feat she combined with jobs as a secretary in the bussiness department, bookkeeper, switchboard operator and babysitter. She received scholarships for tuition and room and board, and edited the yearbook and the literary magazine.
The best job offer she got as a graduate was as a secretary.
"This was my first bruising encounter with social disadvantage," Woerner said recently. But it was not the last.
Woerner, now president of a home-care services firm, is one of three white women owning their own firms who in the past six months have managed to convince the Small Business Administration that they are sufficiently disadvantaged socially and economically to qualify for assistance under the SBA's contract set-aside program.
Reserved in the past almost exclusively for blacks, Hispanics, native Americans and a category called Asian-Pacific, the program was changed last December to give others a crack at persuading SBA authorities on a case-by-case basis that they, too, have suffered.
The change may be an important one for nonminority women business owners, who say they have received little federal assistance in overcoming the obstacles that confront them. The SBA's 8A program, which allows firms found to be disadvantaged to bid for federal contracts sheltered from competition from firms unencumbered by the same disadvantages, was set up with racial and ethnic minorities in mind. A few firms controlled by Anglo women managed to qualify for its benefits in the early stages of the program. But in October 1978 a wording change made it harder.
The definition of a qualifying firm was changed from one controlled by someone who was socially or economically disadvantaged to one controlled by someone who was socially and economically disadvantagede. The practical effect was that "it made the primary beneficiaries blacks, Hispanics, native Americans and Asian-Pacific," said an SBA official.
Women as a class still are not considered sufficiently disadvantaged to benefit from the program. But with the SBA's new case-by-case standard, women like Woerner -- or white males who are handicapped or from economically depressed areas, for that matter -- who can stack up "clear and convincing" evidence of dual disadvantage may qualify.Even so, many women entrepreneurs don't expect to see nonminority women benefit in great numbers.
Woerner was the first to qualify under the new standard.
Back in 1964, when she surveyed the limited job opportunities offered her after she was graduated, Woerner decided to get another credential: a master's degree in business administration.
"Harvard's MBA program at that time, was closed to women," she told a congressional hearing last month. She went instead to the University of Chicago's MBA program, where she was the only woman in her class.
She held down another part-time job and made good grades. When graduation came, her male colleagues moved into well-paying jobs in major firms -- and Woener finally found a job as a management consultant for a small research company, where she also kept books.
In 1968, with three years' experience as a management consultant, she applied for a job in New York with a major consulting firm that had hired some of her University of Chicago classmates fresh out of school.
"Although the firm said I did exceptionally well on the interviews and tests, it decided it just wasn't ready to hire a woman," she said. "I hadn't applied there to be a woman. I'd applied there to use my talents as a professional consultant . . . social disadvantage, again."
Ten years later she set up her own firm, HomeCall, in Rochester, N.Y.
"Even though I had experience in the field of health care, an MBA degree and a home that could be used as collateral, I was turned down for a $10,000 loan from a Rochester bank to which I had been recommended by my male professional friends."
In 1979, Woerner applied for the 8A program and was turned down as not socially disadvantaged. She applied again after the rules change and was approved on Dec. 12. The other two firms that have qualified are Kathy's Kranes & Construction Corp. of St. Paul, Minn., a general contracting company that also sells, leases and brokerages heavy equipment, and Building Services Unlimited, a Cincinnati firm that provides janitorial services and sells floor and wall coverings.
They were, an SBA official said, "three Caucasian women who did, because of their gender, qualify." Others have failed to qualify and, with the fate of the entire program up in the air, it is unclear whether there will be many more.