Virtual Roundtable | May 5, 2021
Focus of Discussion
WOSB Certification Requirements & Participation in Federal Government Contracting
On May 5th 2021, NWBC convened women business owners and entrepreneurs, government officials, resource partners, and other key stakeholders to address certification requirements and to hear their perspectives on the WOSB federal contracting program. Ensuring WOSBs have greater, more equitable access to federal contracting opportunities, including set-asides and sole source awards, remains a top priority for the Council.
NWBC’s #LetsTalkBusiness roundtable discussions help serve as a springboard for the Council’s annual policy recommendations. This event was closed to press. Business owners’ and external stakeholders’ names were kept anonymous to ensure an open and robust discussion.
Access to Capital and Opportunity Subcommittee Co-chair Pam Prince-Eason, the current CEO of the Women’s Business Enterprise Council (WBENC), served as the principal moderator of this virtual roundtable. Pam was joined by fellow subcommittee members Maria Rios, Nicole Cober, and NWBC Chair Liz Sara. Council Member Barb Kniff McCulla, who currently serves on the Council’s Rural Women’s Entrepreneurship Subcommittee, also attended the virtual roundtable.
Additionally, SBA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Women’s Business Ownership (OWBO) Natalie Madeira Cofield delivered pre-recorded opening remarks. Other key SBA officials joined the roundtable discussion as well, including: Deputy Assistant Administrator for OWBO Donald Malcolm Smith, Deputy Director for the Office of Government Contracting and Business Development Thomas (Tom) McGrath, and Supervisory Business Opportunity Specialist for OGCBD Alisa Sheard.
Summary of Key Takeaways
- In addition to more education of key agency staff on WOSB set-asides and sole source awards, there needs to be some sort of incentive or consequence for noncompliance.
- Some WOSBs find the certification process and website cumbersome, while others found the new website quite easy to navigate.
- More clarity and guidance on WOSB award protests should be made available on SBA’s website.
- Expand the certification time period.
- Rather than raising the WOSB contracting goal above the current 5%, there should be more attention placed on increasing confidence in how the government arrives at that number.
- The WOSB federal contracting program is not as robust as other comparable contracting programs. Also, the federal government needs to start asking whether bigger businesses are really meeting all their socioeconomic goals.
- There must be greater education of contracting officer representatives (CORs) about the program and how to utilize it.
- One of the most challenging steps is writing the winning proposal.
- Overall, the option to sole source awards to WOSBs is not leveraged enough. There are not enough RFPs (Requests for Proposals) being put out that way.
- Demonstrating past performance could be a potential barrier, making it difficult for more WOSBs to compete for awards.
- The federal government needs more acquisition professionals with sufficient expertise on sole source contracting. Resources are limited with respect to expanding outreach efforts. Legislative action would probably be required to change the program.
- Many women business owners operate within unique social constructs and time constraints. Federal forecasting schedules could prove useful in helping to cast a wider net of WOSBs.
- Matchmaking does not work well or produce results for every WOSB.
- Agency staff face resource and funding limitations, but there is a strong focus on getting more WOSBs into the process. A new NAICS Code Study is also close to completion.
- An agency official underscored the importance of better educating buyers at federal agencies and contacting the OSDBU (Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization) as a contract requirement is being written.
- A third-party certifier suggested that a central depository of information targeted to diverse audiences in multiple languages would be helpful.
Overview of NWBC
NWBC Chair Liz Sara
Chair Liz Sara opened the meeting by commenting on the Council’s ongoing priorities. She emphasized the importance the Council has placed on raising awareness and advocating for greater inclusion and participation of women entrepreneurs and business owners in high-growth, high-revenue industries such as those in the STEM fields where women have been traditionally underrepresented. Liz also commented that many women-owned businesses are often local, neighborhood service providers and that investors are typically more interested in funding high-growth industries. She also noted that in addition to encouraging more women into high-revenue industries, the Council’s Access to Capital and Opportunity Subcommittee remains focused on increasing federal government contracting awards to women-owned small businesses (WOSBs) and economically disadvantaged women-owned small businesses (EDWOSBs). “Education of contracting officers is only going to take us so far. There needs to be some sort of motivation, award, or consequence for noncompliance.”
Natalie Cofield, Assistant Administrator for OWBO, SBA
Administrator Cofield shared the Biden Administration and U.S. Small Business Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman’s priorities to help fuel an economic recovery and support small businesses, particularly traditionally underserved business owners, including women and minorities. She also provided roundtable participants with a broad overview of OWBO’s Women’s Business Center (WBC) program.
Ms. Cofield shared OWBO currently funds 135 WBCs across the country. “We are proud to have the largest expansion of the network in the history of the SBA … We are also funding nearly $70 million to support core grants, as well as COVID relief for WBCs to provide critical assistance.”
She also highlighted available pandemic relief available through the SBA. “I encourage all to learn more about the EIDL loan program where limits have been increased from $150.000 to 500,000. Visit us at SBA.gov … [and] thank you NWBC for all you do to serve as a voice for women entrepreneurs in Congress and across the Administration.”
Q&A Led by Council Member Pam Prince-Eason
Principal Moderator Pam Prince-Eason opened the discussion by asking roundtable participants to opine on when a business is well-positioned and ready to certify. She specifically asked participants to share any challenges related to navigating the certification process. Pam also asked business owners who previously self-certified about their personal experiences with the recertification process.
Referencing the 5% WOSB contracting goal, this CEO noted, “The first 10 years of my journey, we never really saw anything for women-owned businesses.” She remarked on her own experiences sharing that from her perspective, the certification process “can get complicated” and advised that rather than losing valuable time, it may be worthwhile hiring a consultant who can shepherd a WOSB through the process.
She also noted that self-certification was easier and that there is a lack of clarity with respect to what can trigger a legitimate protest. “I had an $18 million contract. Some protested and said my business was not really woman-owned… There was a lack of clarity on the SBA website as to whether the board could be all male, even if a woman is a majority owner. Even today there are lots of grey areas… I must have spent thousands of dollars and over a month of time with my senior staff.”
She also shared that the “shortest path to entry is to team with a larger company” because the business is positioned to “inherit its past performance.” Finally, she noted the significance of relationships and limitations on many women’s time who often shoulder the brunt of caretaking and childrearing responsibilities. “We all know that deals get closed over wine, drink, and dinner. We know that women are also the caretakers.” In short, she suggested that more set asides for women might encourage more established or larger businesses to reach out to WOSBs for teaming opportunities. She also emphasized the importance of educating everyone—all agency staff—from the top down to help more WOSBs access federal contracting opportunities.
A CEO of a local Grand Rapids supply chain management and warehouse supply company
This WOSB CEO offered a different perspective. “I had no trouble. We were already WBENC certified. I found the process intuitive and clear. I had my certification in about five weeks total.” She also praised individual members of SBA’s Office of Government Contracting (OGC) staff.
This roundtable participant also shared that she did not in fact encourage hiring consultants, particularly if a WOSB is already WBENC certified. She emphasized that the WOSB program is “not an act of charity” and that rather than raising the goal above the current 5%, the way that percentage is calculated should be examined more closely so that there is greater confidence as to how the agency arrives at that number. “We need to say we have confidence in that number. That is more important than raising the goal.”
President and CEO of an information technology company, Air Force veteran, and women veteran advocate
This executive described the certification process as “easy”. However, she noted: “I am also service-disabled veteran owned certified. Despite already being an 8a and self-certified woman-owned business, it still took 90 days. That was the part I did not understand.”
(This participant commented again on the set-aside and sole source awards. See below.)
A CEO of a Native American, third-party verified WOSB, management and technical services company
This business is a Native American women-owned business and recommended for the government to consider extending the certification period for WOSBs. She also raised whether it might be possible to consider one unified “process and cost structure” for third party certifiers to help level the playing field. “Your certification lasts for a certain period of time—you have to do it every year. One of the things that may be helpful is to expand that time period.”
She also suggested that there must be greater education of contracting officer representatives (CORs) about the program and how to utilize it. “We mentor a lot of other women-owned businesses. One of the things we find challenging is the education that needs to occur with CORs. One of the things we get is, once 8a, always 8a. There needs to be a more enhanced understanding amongst the CORs about the fact that we continue to serve. Part of success is growth. You find that it works against you when trying to go with the WOSB certification.”
Council Member Maria Rios
Co-moderator and Council Member Maria Rios asked a series of follow-up questions on the topic of bidding successfully and landing a contract. “How can women truly compete with larger or public companies that can afford to bid on a contract for far less? What were some of the challenges you faced in winning that first government contract? Specifically, what resources and tactics have you leveraged to overcome these challenges? Have you ever entered into a teaming agreement or joint venture?”
President of a company that focuses on providing role playing services to the federal government
This roundtable participant shared the challenges associated with writing a winning proposal. “The most difficult part is not doing the work, it’s not preparing to do the work, its being able to write the winning proposal.”
She was also interested to know whether the new certification requirements would “weed out” businesses that are not truly woman-owned and further impact the 5% WOSB federal contracting goal. “I wonder how many there truly are. I wonder if the percentage will truly be 5%. I am always for raising the goal.”
Finally, she emphasized that while it is possible to sole source an award to a WOSB, it is not really being leveraged enough. “We were fortunate to win a WOSB award as a prime. It is pitiful to see the number of RFPs they put out that way.” She emphasized the lack of parity with other like programs. “You can sole source an award to a WOSB, [but] I am not seeing that used anywhere. If it is not being used, there is no parity.”
Ms. Rios generally agreed that improvements should be explored and make the website “much easier to use,” otherwise it “would not be cost effective” to try to win the contract for some business owners.
President and CEO of an information technology company, Air Force veteran, and women veteran advocate
This roundtable participant opined that startup businesses just simply cannot compete. “I was a director at EXIM I have a lot of experience in this space. The only way you can truly compete is by understanding how and having the ability to write those proposals and how to price your proposal. You also have to have client intimacy.”
She also underscored that demonstrating past performance could be a potential barrier, making it difficult for more WOSBs to compete. “How do we create vehicles and opportunities for us to compete in our own environment? We represent 50% of the country. We should have 50% of the business. We are only 40% of the current businesses. Equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy. Our diversity is our greatest strength. That fact alone should say we need more WOSBs.”
She continued by noting that research shows that supporting more female entrepreneurs helps bolster national economies. “There are studies that say the world needs to support the development of women entrepreneurs. When women gain access to their own financial freedom, they are lifted out of poverty. This is not us just asking for more business. This is us saying, this would benefit the whole country.”
Most notably, she underscored the WOSB federal contracting program is not as robust as other contracting programs. “There is a lack of teeth in the program–a lack in ensuring that those larger businesses meet their small business goals.” In short, the federal government needs to ask whether those bigger businesses really have met all their socioeconomic goals. “There should be more teeth with respect to measuring that participation from the beginning to the end of the contract… It’s what you measure and reward that actually gets it done.”
Alisa Sheard, Supervisory Business Specialist Opportunity Specialist, Office of Contract Assistance
Ms. Sheard provided feedback. “We do not have a WOSB contracting vehicle out there. I hear the feedback. Is there an opportunity to create an entryway for WOSBs and any other startup?”
She also noted that firms are not required to do a full documentation recertification annually. That recertification is only every three years. The annual is a much smaller, abbreviated process, simply addressing whether anything critical changed. “If not, you should be good to go.”
Ms. Sheard commented that procurement center representatives are sitting at the table during acquisitions. She acknowledged it would be beneficial to have more acquisition professionals with more knowledge or expertise on sole source contracting. “The problem is not necessarily just the sole source methodology—it may more so be outreach and awareness. [However], there is a resource limit as far as availability to expand outreach and awareness. Legislative action would be required to change the program. It was not written with the same criteria and execution as the 8a program.”
Ms. Sheard noted that the agency does not just look at the dollars awarded but also the actual number of contracts awarded. This can be evaluated against the available pool of women business owners. This could be a critical piece that has not been explored before. “Maybe there is a separate goal we can attach to using the set-aside categories. This could give teeth to the OSBDUs to encourage the use of these businesses.”
CEO of a writing services consulting firm
This business owner shared that there are many ways to get past performance that many small businesses may not be aware of. She noted relationship-building to get those letters of support and MOUs (memorandum of understanding). “You can show you have people that support your services… Past performance can start at the local or state level or on a subcontract.”
She went on to share information about her business’ core capabilities. “Not everybody that is a great executive, or a great leader, is a great writer. There is an art to it. We provide those services.”
She also provided an example of how bigger companies sometimes leverage WOSBs for a bid but sometimes never follow-up with the WOSB. “We got a multimillion-dollar contract and now we are going on year four, and we have not heard from them on that front. We have other business, but it is interesting to see how the accountability for the prime contractor is not there. Verifying credibility [is important] and making sure they are actually using those small businesses.”
CEO of a food and beverage supply company
This roundtable participant also called attention to the unique social constructs and time constraints in which many female business owners operate. She went on to share: “We act as a vehicle for small producers entering these larger federal procurement systems. A lot of what is being discussed is calling attention to building social capital.”
She also raised the possibility of third party certifiers, pre-vetting certain opportunities and funneling those by putting out forecasting schedules. “Time is something that lots of us do not have on our side.” By being more aware of potential opportunities, more women business owners “can come to the table with our beautiful proposals and past performance.”
Council Member Nicole Cober
Co-moderator Nicole Cober addressed the issue of goal setting for the WOSB federal contracting program. “For the second time in the last seven years, women-owned small businesses exceeded the federal government’s 5% goal by achieving 5.19% of all prime and subcontracting dollars. In your opinion, is there an arguable benefit to raising the federal government’s 5% contracting goal for award dollars to WOSBs?”
She also asked for specific recommendations to strengthen and improve WOSB/EDWOSB federal government contracting opportunities and spur better engagement from agency contracting officers.
Chair Liz Sara
Liz Sara also addressed this issue with the women business owners. “Is there any need for fixes or any improvements that should be made to the WOSB program and contractor experience?”
President and CEO and an expert in CMMI (Capability Maturity Model Integration), PMO (Project Management Office) and ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) services. [Wendy Romeu]
This participant shared that matchmaking is not a tool that has worked for this business. “I am a younger WOSB. We are going through the process of subcontracting to ‘Bigs’ to get that past performance… The match making has not worked for us. This goes back to having funds to participate in everything that is available.”
She also shared, “I am also an 8a. Thank you to SBA for extending the program for one year. We are starting to see success with OTAs” (Other Transaction Authority, 10 U.S.C. 2371b).
CEO of an interactive software company and a leader in the educational software and serious games industry
“We have been a WOSB for 25 years. I loved the suggestion earlier that perhaps we do not have to recertify every year. There should be a more streamlined process.”
This participant also noted that while you can sole-source to a WOSB, she had not personally seen it. “There should be something for WOSBs that are not certified in other categories.”
Thomas (Tom) McGrath, Deputy Director, Government Contracting Business Development (GCBD), SBA
Tom McGrath is responsible for certification of women owned and economically disadvantaged women owned small businesses to compete for contracting opportunities under the set-aside acquisition programs. He underscored the importance of ensuring the program supports legitimate women-owned businesses while pushing out any individuals trying to take advantage of the program. “We want to get more WOSBs into the process. We think the process is fair and reasonable and that we are asking for the right documents to know who you are… We want to make sure the real businesswomen are successful.”
The agency expects about 16,000 coming through the process this year. “Right now, we are looking at about 9,000. We’ve had over 2,100 applications approved. WOSB and EDWOSB are about 50/50.”
He noted there are resource and funding limitations. “We are working to get more resources and personnel… We have a plan for AI [artificial intelligence] and robotics to conduct risk analysis.”
He also shared there are various initiatives underway and channels to help address questions or concerns. “If you do have issues, I have a biweekly seminar. We are trying to get a call center in.”
Tom McGrath also mentioned a new agency NAICS Code Study that is close to completion. “This is done every five years to look at disadvantaged codes. We do not want to decrease that list at all.” Ideally the list of NAICS code would increase if the findings support that.
Council Member Nicol Cober
Co-moderator Nicole Cober followed up with questions for government officials on addressing best practices to achieve parity with the 8a program, specifically related to sole-sourcing opportunities. “What specific resources are needed to improve sole-sourcing for WOSBs?”
Donald Malcolm Smith, Deputy Assistant Administrator, OWBO, SBA
There are currently 135 active Women’s Business Center (WBC) partners. “WBCs have an understanding of the WOSB program to point women in the right direction. Because of the largess of contracts in the DC area, the centers in Washington and MD are especially well-versed.”
He underscored the importance of better educating buyers at federal agencies. “I spent the first six years of my career as an Admin Manager at the Department of Labor. We need to educate those in the federal government who actually buy things. [It is important] to know how to write the request for information.”
“The contracting officer is actually educating you once you get to the buying process. This takes time away from you procuring something… That takes away from you selecting a WOSB or 8A. If you know this from the onset, you can go directly to the OSDBU to get the list of qualifying firms.”
He also noted that most federal agencies have a principal deputy secretary that functions somewhat as a COO. Therefore, it is important to engage the OSDBU as the requirement is being written. “There needs to be an encouragement for them to force the internal communication between the OSDBU and those buyers.”
Chamber President and Third Party Certifier
“Some of the challenges we see is there is no central depository for information when you want to get into the procurement space. Also, targeted information by demographic and providing that information in multiple languages would be very helpful.”
She also shared some of the advice she provides her clients. “Your elevator speech needs to be honed, big time. Don’t be so proud not to accept a helping hand. Not everybody makes a good government contractor. It is a question of capacity.”
Council Member Pam Prince Eason thanked the roundtable participants for their insights and adjourned the meeting.