SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet says her agency is trying to more effectively promote its lending, counseling and contracting services to women-owned businesses. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)

Starting and running a small business is challenging enough, especially right now, with the economic recovery still sputtering.

It’s all the more difficult if you’re a woman.

A new congressional report reveals that companies owned by women represent nearly a third of the country’s small businesses, yet they account for less than 5 percent of dollars borrowed through traditional small business loans. In addition, they are more often turned down for loans than their male counterparts, and those that do manage to secure capital generally do so under much less favorable terms.

It isn’t just in the lending arena that female entrepreneurs are facing a gender gap. Despite programs intended to direct government work to women-owned firms, many more federal contracts still go to companies owned by men, according to the study released by the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.

“Women entrepreneurs still face a glass ceiling,” the authors of the report write.

Any attempts to close those divides would likely start with bankers, investors and contracting officers. Still, some say federal lawmakers and administration officials could take some steps to accelerate that process and give female entrepreneurs a greater shot at success. During a Senate hearing on Wednesday, several female business leaders and policymakers pitched their recommendations.

• Barbara Corcoran, founder of the Corcoran Group in New York, N.Y. and shark investor on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” argued that too few entrepreneurs are aware of the resources offered by the Small Business Administration. She believes the agency is missing out on strategic partnership opportunities that could help drive referrals to its lending and counseling services.

Specifically, Corcoran advised the agency to team with the growing number of both online crowdfunding platforms and business incubator programs across the county to help get the word out about it’s programs.

“We need to take what’s working and build a better communication system around it,” she said during the hearing.

• Veronica O. Davis, partner and principal planning manager of Nspiregreen LLC in Washington, D.C., told lawmakers that, while already helpful, some of the SBA’s lending and grant programs could be improved. Namely, she said the agency’s microloan program— a program popular with women-owned firms, under which the SBA provides loan funds through third-party nonprofits—includes too many restrictions that preclude those nonprofits from tailoring their offerings to best meet the needs of the borrower.

She urged Congress to make the program’s guidelines more flexible and eliminate arbitrary guidelines that she says prevent some businesses from securing small-dollar loans.

• Lynn Sutton, chief executive of Advantage Building Contractors in Atlanta, Ga., noted that her company broke into the government services arena thanks largely to a roofing contract it was awarded under what’s known as sole sourcing. The term refers to contracts that, under certain circumstances, may be negotiated directly between an agency and a private company, thus bypassing the conventional bidding process.

“We did such a good job that the agency came back and said, ‘Can you do this, can you do that?’ ” she said. “It allowed us to win more jobs before we even completed the first one.”

Sutton asked lawmakers to consider legislation that would allow sole-source contracts to be awarded as part of an existing women-owned small business procurement program, which she says would give more female entrepreneurs a chance to break into the market.

• Nely Galán, founder of Galan Entertainment in Marina del Rey, Calif. and former president of Telemundo, noted that many Hispanic women business owners in her network “don’t even know how to find out what is offered,” referring to the wealth of free business support and training services available through government programs and nonprofit organizations.

“If you go on the Web sites, and you’re trying to start from scratch, it’s very complicated,” she said.

Galán urged the policymakers in the room to take steps to better educate the public about the government’s training services as well as its contracting opportunities. She says they should start by creating additional mentorship programs that connect up-and-coming female entrepreneurs with “women who are already further along.”

• Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship committee, pointed out that women-owned businesses have historically sought what are considered very small loans, or microloans. Often, she said in an interview following the hearing, they are looking for more capital than they can put on credit cards but less than the $300,000-and-up loans available through the SBA’s most popular lending programs.

“They need that intermediate step,” she said.

She says her committee may consider legislation that would expand the SBA’s lending offerings to try to address that gap in the $50,000-to-$300,000 range. Meanwhile, her staff is also working on a proposal that would make permanent a federal export assistance program, which she says would help small businesses owned by both men and women expand their companies overseas.

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