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Roundtable Series

Washington, D.C. Roundtable - April 30, 2024

“Connecting Women Entrepreneurs to Federal Opportunities: An NWBC Roundtable” is in white bold font over a pink background with white starbursts around it. The event will be held on April 30th from 1-4 PM ET at The Mayflower Hotel in D.C.

A Roundtable on Increasing Access to Opportunity for Women Entrepreneurs

The National Women’s Business Council (NWBC) held a roundtable on April 30th from 1-4 PM ET in D.C. at the Mayflower Hotel in D.C. focused on increasing access to opportunity for women in business. The title of the roundtable was “Connecting Women Entrepreneurs to Federal Opportunities.”

The focuses of this conversation included the value of expanding outreach, awareness and data collection, the importance of lowering barriers to increase participation, and the potential for greater collaboration to open more doors for all when it comes to opportunities offered by the federal government. It also allowed the Council to release its groundbreaking research on women’s entrepreneurship in high-yield and high-growth industries.


The event began with Executive Director Tené Dolphin’s remarks.

  • Executive Director Dolphin welcomed participants, introduced the National Women’s Business Council (NWBC), and described its history.
  • There has been significant progress over the Council’s 36-year history, including a 70% increase in federal contracts awarded to women-owned small businesses (WOSBs) under the Biden-Harris Administration.
  • Challenges remain to realizing women’s entrepreneurial potential.
  • NWBC convenes entrepreneurs, organizational leaders, and policymakers to develop, disseminate, and explain policy recommendations.
  • The focus around which the Council seeks policy solutions, was increasing opportunity for women founders in high growth, high yield industries and related federal programming. The roundtable participants discussed ways to improve outreach, lower barriers to participation, and strengthen cross-agency collaboration.

Chair Sima Ladjevardian delivered opening remarks.

  • Women-owned businesses make up 39.1% of all businesses and parity would add more than $7 trillion to the economy.
  • The surge of new women-owned startups during and after the pandemic is encouraging, but it is also alarming that critical programs like 8(a) have been challenged.
  • Taking stock of the moment, NWBC has transformed its Women in STEM subcommittee into the Access to Opportunity subcommittee – inspired by the Investing in America agenda, the scale of opportunity, and the urgency of connecting women with programs and initiatives.
  • Investing in America bills make landmark investments in equitable economic growth: $150 billion in the CHIPS for America Act; $391 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act; and $1 trillion in the Infrastructure and Investment in Jobs Act (Bipartisan Infrastructure Law).
  • The purpose of the roundtable was to build a blueprint for government programming that centers women, and creates pipelines to opportunity for women entrepreneurs.

Kajal Kapur, Principal of Kapur Energy Environment Economics (KEEE), LLC, presented preliminary findings of the firm’s literature review for NWBC on women’s entrepreneurship in high-yield and high-growth industries.

  • KEEE’s full literature review includes data and analysis, and identifies challenges, best practices, and policy recommendations.
  • In this area, present challenges mean there are future opportunities for growth.
  • Women in academic STEM roles have unequal exposure to patenting and commercialization opportunities and own far fewer firms overall, but among people younger than 44, women owners of STEM firms outnumber men.
    • One solution: increase the funding of programs for more and earlier STEM exposure for girls
  • There is a lack of seniority and resources for female STEM faculty, but women do report as much success as men in developing inventions and publishing articles about their work.
    • A few solutions: make gender-blind decisions about tenure, promotion, financing, and licensing; do proactive outreach targeting women and others who are underrepresented among patentees
  • Overall, women experience limited success securing grant funding, and awards they secure are less on average per person. One bright spot is that women who apply have strong chances at winning funding through some competitions such as SBIR/STTR.
    • One solution: recognizing women-owned nonemployer firms are closer to parity with male-owned counterparts than employer firms, programming could focus on types of technical assistance that help nonemployer firms get to the next level
  • Women face unfavorable financial sector evaluations of business plans and prospects.
    • One solution: lenders and investors could weigh social impact in decision-making, or concentrate intentionally on women
  • There is a lack of role models, partnerships and networks for women that grows from the presence of fewer women in STEM fields who can mentors others, particularly women of color. Although overall numbers are low, research shows Black women and Latinas own more STEM firms than Black men and Latinos.
    • A few solutions: build out resources starting in sectors where women are the most active as entrepreneurs; develop virtual programs and other creative ways to make the most of existing resources
  • Assistance to women in STEM dips when there are shocks, and pandemic-era assistance programs did not initially reach women. Eventually, however, pandemic conditions seem to have expanded opportunity for women in STEM.
    • One solution: during crises, focus emergency assistance on fundamental support services like childcare
  • The prospective benefits of creating wider opportunity for women entrepreneurs in STEM fields include more innovation, higher gross domestic product, better worker and customer relationships, and solutions for important problems.
  • Question for Ms. Kapur: What was surprising or notable? Women’s resilience in spite of odds and barriers, and the scale of the success women have attained in innovating in STEM fields.

The moderators for this roundtable were Council Members Pamela Prince-Eason, President and CEO of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) and Selena Rodgers Dickerson, President and Founder of SARCOR, LLC and Selene, LLC. They introduced themselves, before introducing roundtable participants and their affiliations:

  • Ms. Alex Palmer-Sullivan, Professional Staff Member for the Senate Small Business Committee
    • Dr. Arti Santhanam, Executive Director of the Emerging Technology Centers
    • Ms. Christina Hale, Assistant Administrator of the Office of Women’s Business Ownership (OWBO) at the U.S. Small Business Administration
    • Ms. Danette Nguyen, Managing Director of the Maryland Women’s Business Center
    • Ms. Dottie Li, Founder and CEO of TransPacific Communications
    • Ms. Erin Kizer, Director of Land for the Commons at Industrial Commons
    • Mr. Francisco Cartagena, Program Manager of the Maryland Women’s Business Center
    • Ms. Glenda Thomas, President and CEO of ElectraGrid Solutions
    • Ms. Gray Harris, Senior Advisor for Food Systems Finance for Rural Development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
    • Ms. Jackie Lopez, President of Premier Enterprise Solutions
    • Ms. Laura Smailes, Assistant Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at UNC Charlotte
    • Ms. Maryam Janani-Flores, Chief of Staff of the Economic Development Administration (EDA) at the U.S. Department of Commerce
    • Ms. Miles Sandler, Director of Policy and Engagement at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
    • Ms. Molly Weston Williamson, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress
    • Ms. Natasha Williams, Managing Partner of N-Touch Strategies
    • Ms. Ngozi Bell, Region 3 Advocate in the Office of Advocacy at SBA
    • Ms. Rachel Snyderman, Managing Director of Economic Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center
    • Dr. Randal Pinkett, Co-founder, Chairman and CEO of BCT Partners and the New Jersey Cybersecurity Regional Innovation Cluster
    • Ms. Shayvonne Jenkins, Founder and CEO of SheBillionaire

The first portion of the discussion focused on best practices around raising awareness of government programs and initiatives like those that make up the Investing in America agenda.

  • Council Member Rodgers Dickerson asked participants where they or their organizations fit into the ecosystem of federal opportunities.
    • Assistant Administrator Hale leads SBA’s Office of Women’s Business Ownership, and works for Administrator Casillas Guzman, the voice of small businesses in the Cabinet. OWBO supports Women’s Business Centers (WBCs), which connect businesses with federal resources. OWBO recently awarded grants to 17 new centers, bringing the total nationwide to more than 150. WBCs are adept at demystifying the web of available resources and at getting people what they need to meet their entrepreneurial goals. The Biden-Harris Administration’s Equity Action Plans hold agencies and our grantees accountable for engaging underserved owners.
    • Mr. Cartagena represents the Maryland WBC. Its staff meet clients where they are. Lack of awareness of resources is a constant challenge, and centers do not have the funding to do sufficient outreach and marketing. The MD WBC provides assistance in three languages, but its association with the government can make it challenging to establish trust with potential audiences most likely to use multilingual support. Finally, WBCs see businesses they serve encounter administrative and structural barriers like long waits for WOSB certification.
    • Ms. Li’s business benefitted from WBC assistance in its early stages, and in general, she took advantage of every SBA resource available. It is one thing to understand that programs are out there, but another to know how to go to take advantage. Networking is the answer. Business owners have to tap into human resources and build connections to elevate and grow. Ms. Li’s company earned a federal contract to produce translations during the pandemic, and tapping into technical assistance was a crucial help with securing the opportunity.
    • Ms. Bell is a regional representative with SBA’s Office of Advocacy, which conducts research and produces regulatory analyses to protect small businesses. Her responsibility is to be present in communities and to do culturally relevant outreach to help people learn about and understand regulations, and advocate to prevent harm to small businesses. She recommends that businesses participate in roundtables and give feedback to government entities to ensure the government is more responsive to small business needs.
      • Executive Director Dolphin noted that if women entrepreneurs could speak up before lawmaking on regulations that happen to affect them, that would be powerful, and asked how business owners could connect with the Office of Advocacy. Ms. Bell recommended making a personal contact and staying in touch. She sends a newsletter with information to her contacts, and otherwise maintains personal communications.
    • Ms. Williams said that as an early entrepreneur she engaged with lots of organizations, and then found it challenging to create and capitalize on the business opportunities that could open up as a result. She benefitted from connecting with and starting to do business with a mentor company. It was helpful to have someone demonstrate how to negotiate systems and break through volume to find promising opportunities – to provide feedback drawing on knowledge and experience she did not yet have.
    • Council Member Rodgers Dickerson summarized participants’ recommendations: personal connections and ecosystems are valuable. Women entrepreneurs should proactively seek out the help they need, seize upon opportunities to participate in policy conversations, and use free resources without hesitation.
  • Council Member Prince-Eason asked participants to identify resources and programs for women entrepreneurs that deserve greater attention than they enjoy.
    • Ms. Lopez said that despite her experience as a business owner and federal employee, she found it difficult to start a small business from scratch that did work with the federal government. WBCs, THRIVE, and the 8(a) program helped eliminate barriers to getting started; once her business was certified, it earned its first multi-million dollar contract. One standout WBC program paired lessons on business development with mentor feedback.
    • Ms. Weston Williamson concurred, adding that sufficient funding for agency outreach and education is critical to ensuring equitable access to opportunity, particularly for those who might be especially likely to miss out without that targeted outreach.
    • Ms. Snyderman agreed that there are vast resources for work in STEM fields across agencies, and noted that data-sharing across entities could not only help raise awareness but also improve the quality and outcomes of the programs. Cross-agency and government-wide efforts to improve access to contracting opportunities have achieved significant results.
    • Ms. Sandler said that SBA regional administrators and representatives are powerful and important voices, but their presence thins out in more rural areas, and in some areas there is a small number of people to represent SBA to a large geography. As advocates and economic actors we all need to connect one another at every opportunity and encourage entrepreneurs to support one another. The Kauffman Foundation has worked with the Urban Libraries Council because libraries are ubiquitous and are communities’ front doors and connectors to resources. It is important to connect and partner with historically underserved communities and spaces in building networks, including immigrant communities.
  • Council Member Rodgers Dickerson asked participants to speak about ways to overcome budget, staffing, and other constraints on raising awareness about federal programs.
    • Assistant Administrator Hale observed that women suffer the most from imposter syndrome and do not see themselves as the kind of business owners that resources and organizations are meant to serve. To raise awareness, we have to be proactive: SBA will now be funding issue-specific WBCs to reach more women who are not reaching out for help with entrepreneurial endeavors. It is frustrating to see the difference in the resources that get to people in the know vs. people who are still figuring it out, or who do not see themselves as part of the club.
    • Ms. Smailes works in a university setting withfaculty, students, and the community, and also sees one of the biggest hurdles as identifying oneself as a woman in STEM, an entrepreneur, a potential owner and inventor. It is helpful to set out archetypes that people identify with because women in particular will eliminate themselves from consideration if they do not meet every criterion. She makes sure to tell success stories, and to invite in successful entrepreneurs to do the same, to show people they belong.
    • Ms. Nguyen identified WBCs as a best-kept secret. Centers connect and serve entrepreneurs from ideation to maturity, and are able to introduce businesspeople to procurement agents. Her advice to other resource partners is to advertise the availability of services through multiple channels, including word of mouth among businesspeople. Resource partners also can and should borrow ideas and accessibility features from other kinds of programming: for example, if planning in-person programming, interpretation and childcare may be needed.
      • Ms. Li added that open communication during engagements is critically important, and made possible with linguistic accessibility.
    • Ms. Bell encouraged service providers to go to business owners. She has gone into mines and many other unusual locations to meet people who may never be able to make it to an SBA event, and recommends small business walkabouts, which she has found to be a good means to pulling business owners into networks and technical assistance opportunities.
    • Executive Director Dolphin noted that the small business walkabout bears resemblance to door-knocking in politics and organizing, which is hard and resource-intensive, but uniquely valuable in establishing new connections. Many or most business owners cannot sacrifice time on tasks to attend events and engage in ways that make take a medium or long term to pay off. AI tools might help to pick out and lift up resources and messages that are most valuable for particular individuals, from among the breadth of help available.
    • Ms. Santhanam said that the city of Baltimore successfully used similar methods to conduct outreach around pandemic-era programs. Instead of publishing a request for applications, city representatives went out to find and target less well-connected business owners. It also tailored programs – for example, support for artisans – to better match potential beneficiaries’ schedules.
    • Participants identified the need for a single tool that sorts resources by kind and stage of business and idiosyncratic needs, for those who already identify themselves as needing and qualifying for help.
    • Ms. Lopez observed that government programs are strong and comprehensive, offering something for every business at every stage. But the programs do not tend to be connected with effective strategic communications plans or efforts, designed to target communications to the right people at the right times. High-quality outreach requires funding that often is not currently available to agencies.
    • Ms. Palmer-Sullivan noted that prior to the pandemic, average annual SBA appropriations stood at less than $1 billion. Through its pandemic experience and responsibilities and with additional appropriations, SBA improved its marketing operations. Unfortunately, it is not a settled proposition that all federal resource partners can use public funding for outreach – WBCs almost certainly can, but have very limited resources.
    • SBA Senior Advisor to the Administrator Aditi Dussault shared that notwithstanding increases, SBA’s annual budget amounts to roughly one-half of the Department of Defense’s daily spending.
    • Ms. Kizer shared that her program has not always been government-funded, but has been able to and has done effective door-knocking and reaching the community in a way that the government cannot always achieve. In the past, for example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) did not fund nonprofits, but now is broadening the kind of partners it works with.
  • Outstanding questions that panelists did not have time to explore included:
    • What does success look like when it comes to outreach around federal opportunities? How is progress measured and where does data collection fit into this conversation?
    • How do you leverage existing and emerging networks to raise awareness of your opportunities, particularly for women and other underserved entrepreneurs? Do you come to them or do they come to you? How do you show up in their spaces and places? For business owners or funding recipients, how did you become aware of opportunities?
    • Why is ensuring that underserved communities are represented amongst program beneficiaries essential for developing a robust pipeline of innovators?
    • What advice do you have as business owners and advocates for government program managers looking for better ways of catching businesses’ attention and sharing compelling information about opportunities? From a business owners’ standpoint, what are the most effective methods for communicating proactively with women business owners and those that serve them?
    • How well do you think federal agencies are doing overall at raising awareness around their programs? What do constituents, data, or experience tell you about the level of awareness around federal opportunities?
    • What is one policy recommendation you might have for those three entities I mentioned before (the White House, Congress, and SBA) when it comes to raising awareness of opportunities offered by the federal government in support of women’s entrepreneurial participation?

During the second portion of the program, participants discussed best practices for lowering barriers to partnering with the government and securing public funding.

  • Council Member Prince-Eason asked participants to describe the time, effort, and knowledge required to engage with familiar government programs.
    • Ms. Santhanam said thatfinding the confidence and resources to start a company tend to be more significant challenges than establishing a customer base. Resource partners can help, but getting started can take too long to be practical for some entrepreneurs who also need income, and those who cannot find or raise startup money on their own can be misperceived as not serious about their enterprises. Improving representation among investors is important as well. In her experience, women are competitive applicants for the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs but venture capitalists will not invest in awardees. Government entities should encourage and facilitate private investment in publicly supported entrepreneurs by making introductions, demystifying investment opportunities, and considering tax and other incentives.
    • Ms. Janani-Flores shared that EDA invests in supportive ecosystems for entrepreneurs by funding nonprofits and governments. The agency also administers a revolving loan fund program through partners. Recent initiatives include the Tech Hubs and the Recompete Pilot programs, which EDA has promoted by reaching out to cross-sectoral coalitions. EDA has been particularly careful to design accessible application procedures and requirements so that organizations with less capacity for grantwriting and administration can compete. For example, it employs a two-phase grantmaking process, in which the first phase only requires a five-page application. The agency provides direct, immediate feedback to applicants who seek it, and makes that information publicly available. Its leadership was also thoughtful about extending flexibilities for grantees in areas including grant matching requirements.
    • Ms. Santhanam affirmed the value of EDA’s process, noting that she had participated in development of an application to the Tech Hubs program, and that its structure encouraged formation of new, important, and enduring partnerships and the iteration of a proposal that lowered barriers to collaboration.
    • Ms. Kapur asked how EDA advertises flexibilities and the accessibility of its application procedures.
      • Ms. Janani-Flores replied that the agency is intentional about contacting organizations that are not among its past or frequent partners. This resulted in a majority of finalists for the Recompete Pilot program being organizations that had nor previously received EDA funding. The agency raised awareness through outreach webinars which were more accessible to a wider audience in virtual format, by updating frequently asked questions (FAQs) based on incoming inquiries, and by focusing on translation and strong linguistic accessibility. It also strove to communicate simply and clearly what it was looking for in applications. Its field representatives built personal relationships with applicants to help them create competitive requests.
  • Council Member Rodgers Dickerson asked participants to share what they considered to be the most essential features or elements of accessible requests for information, requests for proposal, and notices of funding opportunity.
    • Ms. Thomas said that greater advance notice of proposal deadlines would create more space for WOSB participation in government programs. Women’s enterprises also could benefit from more detailed instruction in FAQs and webinars around how to structure proposals.
    • Dr. Pinkett is involved with a Regional Innovation Cluster group, and through that experience was able to identify a number of helpful policy and procedural changes: shifting from request for information (RFI) requirements to justify set-asides to presumptions that set-asides are permitted; making a representative accessible before publication of a request for proposals (RFP) to describe the goods/services and outcomes sought; allowing more time to respond; avoiding response deadlines near holiday dates; and encouraging rather than prohibiting contract officers from providing feedback. In particular, he encouraged government purchasers to answer questions live rather than in writing if possible.
    • Participants also noted interest in purchasing officers engaging with potential offerors prior to issuance of an RFP to better understand potential solutions and to improve the quality and clarity of RFPs.
    • Ms. Dussault encouraged stakeholders to seek out SBA’s Procurement Center Representatives, who are liaisons to agencies and who can raise concerns and prompt changes when there are contracts that could and should have been set aside but were not. She also affirmed that contracting officers would prefer to allow more time for responses but are constrained by short appropriations cycles in recent years and significant uncertainty over federal spending. She agreed that forecasting needs is helpful for leveling the playing field, and also highlighted the value of establishing contacts and relationships with contracting officers, Offices of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBUs), and other dedicated professionals.
  • Outstanding questions that panelists did not have time to explore included:
    • What changes or offerings has your organization initiated to lower barriers to participation in your programs? How did that change come about and what obstacles did your organization face in implementing them? Or for those who are not federal agencies, have you observed any of these best practices yourselves?
    • What types of changes do you all see on the horizon for lowering barriers to participation in programs? What do you all see as missing or as missed opportunities?
    • What impact does lowering barriers to participation have on entrepreneurial growth and success? Are there any success stories you all would like to share?
    • How are you all leveraging technical assistance providers and utilizing or improving user experience and front-end supports to lower barriers to participation?
    • How well do you think federal agencies are doing overall at lowering barriers to participation in their programs? What do constituents, data, or experience tell you about hurdles and helpful pathways for accessing federal opportunities?
    • What is one policy recommendation for the White House, Congress, and SBA when it comes to lowering barriers to opportunities offered by the federal government in support of women’s entrepreneurial participation?

The concluding minutes of discussion focused on encouraging collaboration by reducing silos, strengthening synergies and ensuring there is no wrong door for entering into entrepreneurship.

  • Council Member Prince-Eason asked participants to assess federal agencies’ collaboration with the private, public, and non-profit sectors to increase participation of women entrepreneurs in their programs.
    • Ms. Jenkins spoke about the value of mentorship and encouraged partnerships for that purpose.
    • Ms. Harris spotlighted USDA as an underappreciated source of investment in businesses, with 16 different programs that provide access to capital and other supports. The agency has created the position of community navigator as a part of the Rural Partners Network charged with introducing people in rural communities to the full breadth of federal agencies, all of which have rural desk officers. She shared a policy recommendation that agencies work toward adoption of a common application for federal programs and reductions in effort required for reporting, which would reduce burden on government reviewers and applicants alike. There are immense opportunities to collaborate across government agencies, and public-private partnerships can fill in the gaps government programs are unable to reach.
    • Ms. Sandler affirmed that advocates and public servants need to work with partners to be effective, and applauded the current Administration’s increased allocations of funding to nonprofits and community leaders who are connectors to underserved audiences. At the same time, community-based organizations have not gotten as much public support to guide entrepreneurs to leverage contracting opportunities in particular industries. More cross-agency collaboration could also help to build ecosystems that are more supportive of all business owners – for example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, SBA, and other agencies’ participation could help to improve the viability of the care business model until child and family care are understood to be public goods. Government can also work with regional banks to reimagine how they assess creditworthiness.
  • Outstanding questions that panelists did not have time to explore included:
  • Have you met other people in this room before? How would you rate your level of awareness of their work?
  • Where do you see silos and synergies when it comes to collaboration around entrepreneurial opportunity? What organizations are doing great collaborative work and are there any you hope to get connected to in the future?
  • Where do you see the glass being half full when we talk about collaborations and what would you say to someone with this glass half empty perspective?
  • How are connections made between programs and offices? From a customer service and experience perspective, how does your office work to ensure there is no wrong door to opportunity? And from a user perspective, how are you seeing connections being facilitated between federal entities or recipients of federal funding?
  • What makes the roles of public, private, and non-profit entities unique and where do you see opportunities to leverage these unique roles more effectively?
  • How does state and local governance and field operations and outreach fit into this collaborative conversation?
  • What is one policy recommendation you might have for the President, Congress, and SBA when it comes to increasing collaboration within the federal government in support of women’s entrepreneurial participation?

As the meeting came to a close, moderators opened the floor to attendees to share their thoughts.

  • Council Members Rodgers Dickerson and Prince-Eason invited members of the audience to comment.
    • The first commenter observed that agencies have created and shared outstanding technical assistance, and from the ground up, the remaining deficit is in grant seeking expertise, and the ability to translate quotidian experiences into a vision and proposals matching the goals of appropriate programs. One potential answer is to build collaborative tables at which communities articulate their needs, and public and philanthropic resources encounter private businesses that can carry out work. Closer relationships and partnerships could help more players to successfully translate what they do, and what they want to do, into the right terms for government to understand.  
    • The second commenter sought advice for identifying a mentor to partner with in SBA’s mentor-protégé program. Participants encouraged her to pursue subcontracting opportunities, seek assistance from a WBC, and speak with women in the room for this event.

NWBC Chair Sima Ladjevardian thanked participants, her fellow Council Members, and the staff of WBENC for their assistance in organizing the event.

end of this event post.

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