Beyond lip service, these actions can help women secure federal contracts
Women are vital drivers of the American economy. Today, women own nearly 13 million businesses in the United States, employ over 9 million workers and generate nearly $2 trillion in revenue annually, and these numbers are increasing exponentially. In 2021, nearly half of all new businesses were started by women — up from 28 percent just two years prior.
So, if women entrepreneurs are playing an increasingly important role on the economic stage, why are less than 5 percent of federal contract dollars going to women-owned small businesses?
As the largest employer and biggest spender in the country, contracting opportunities with the federal government would provide significant access to capital and growth for many small businesses. Amidst the disbursement of the $1.7 trillion spending package this year, we must consider how to increase opportunities for the 12 million women-owned small businesses across the country that make up 40 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) and two-thirds of new jobs. In fact, data shows that women have been reviewed as being more effective contractors, but require additional training to understand the complex federal procurement system.
Some groups and institutions, such as Silicon Valley Bank, initially emerged as potential procurement pipelines for women entrepreneurs, only to miss the mark. However, one already-established avenue exists in every state across the United States in support of women entrepreneurs: women’s business centers. Women’s business centers should be recognized, and properly supported, as conduits for federal procurement opportunities with women across the nation. They are uniquely positioned to meet entrepreneurs where they are and ensure that they receive the proper technical assistance they need. As a nation, we should be able to leverage this resource to increase the literacy rate around procurement opportunities and ensure they are well-equipped to pursue these contracts.
One example of women’s business centers assisting with the federal procurement process is the Catalyst Center for Business and Entrepreneurship in Huntsville, Ala., which has effectively utilized the Small Business Association’s 7(j) Management and Technical Assistance Program and Mentor-Protégé Program to support over 11,000 entrepreneurs. Through the Mentor-Protégé Program, the center is one of the few women’s business centers leveraging these resources as a tie between experienced government contractors and women-owned small businesses. For example, when a mentor is seeking a protégé, they will reach out to the center to find an appropriate match, and it will then connect them to one of the many women-owned small businesses in its network. This scenario is just one of many avenues where women’s business centers can be a resource in addressing the disparate gender gap in federal contracting.
We have a unique window of opportunity to beta-test partnerships with women’s business centers and the federal procurement pipeline. Expanding the presence of women in procurement is a key priority for the Biden administration, and, recently the new Defense Department’s Office of Strategic Capital announced its plans to move into business partnerships — and it’s starting with the Small Business Administration. As the office is designed to provide capital for upcoming contractors and oversight of existing contractors, the natural next step is to prioritize collaboration with resource partners on providing technical assistance around these opportunities.
We have a chance to provide women-owned businesses with the understanding and confidence to pursue, and obtain, federal contracting opportunities. Expanding this access to opportunity will help them into the next decade. Let’s work together to close the gender gap in federal procurement by leveraging the invaluable tolls that are the 145 (soon to be 160) women’s business centers across the country already in the toolbox.
Corinne Goble is the CEO of the Association of Women’s Business Centers.
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