SBA and Pentagon join forces to boost women in contracting

An aerial view of the Pentagon. An aerial view of the Pentagon. Defense Department file photo

The Obama administration’s efforts to reach a congressional goal of steering 5 percent of federal contracting to women-owned small businesses were showcased Wednesday at an unusual forum that brought together Small Business Administration officials; a female contractors advocacy group; and specialists at the Pentagon, the largest awarder of federal contracts.

After two years, SBA’s Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program has fallen short of the 5 percent goal, awarding about 3.4 percent of contracts to women-owned contractors, according to Antonella Pianalto, vice president for government affairs at American Express. The company joined with the advocacy group Women Impacting Public Policy to sponsor the event held in Alexandria, Va., at the Defense Department’s new Mark Center.

Of 205,000 women-owned small businesses, she said, only 1.8 percent gross more than $1 million a year compared with 5.3 percent of all small businesses. But in federal contracting, as many as 42 percent top $1 million, which is a reason she helped launch a “Give me 5 percent” campaign in 2008 to educate women in small business and to make sure they register in a federal database and certify themselves as qualified women-owned entities.

Marie Johns, SBA deputy administrator, announced a new partnership with Women Impacting Public Policy to “build awareness and better connect small business to the right federal acquisition officer.” Since January 2009, small businesses have won $286 billion in federal contracts, $32 billion more than during the previous three years, while overall contracting awards decreased, she said.

Since reviving a women’s small business initiative that was largely dormant during the George W. Bush administration, SBA has added thousands of women to the small business register, Johns said. It has expanded a “quick pay” program that accelerates the time frame for agency payments to contractors from 30 days to 15 days. The agency also set up Supplier Connection, a public-private Web portal that allows a small business to complete a single application to offer services in multiple databases viewed by large companies.

Johns said in each of the past two years SBA had made a record $30 billion in small business loans, and had counseled 500,000 women in its business centers in 50 states. “Small business makes us more globally competitive and helps bring back jobs and investment to the United States,” she said. She also encouraged mentoring.

Ann Sullivan, head of government relations for WIPP, noted, “an SBA partnership is not something they do every day, nor does the Defense Department often do events like this.” She attributed both developments to strong women’s contracting organizations and ongoing relationships as key to winning contracts.

Two years after passage of provisions promoting women-led contracting in the 2000 Small Business Reauthorization Act, Sullivan began monitoring the Bush administration’s implementation and found it slow and frustrating. When proposed rules were finally issued in 2007, she said, many women were put off. The proposal required agencies to set aside contracts only if they admitted to past discrimination against women; offered work in only four marginal industry categories (as opposed to the current 83); and capped the eligible contracts at $4 million to $6.5 million, depending on the industry, Sullivan said.

Changes were made after thousands of women in business wrote letters, but the caps on contract size -- which Sullivan believes discourage contracting officers from making the effort -- remain. A current bill, the Success Act (S. 3442) to raise them, sponsored by Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Mary Landrieu, D-La., might be considered during the coming lame-duck session, she said.

Sullivan scolded Congress for bringing on the looming threat of sequestration. “Anyone -- a computer -- can do across-the-board cuts, so I don’t think that’s what we elected our officials to do,” she said. “We elect them to think about priorities. What small business people know is that you need revenue and thoughtful spending cuts. Why is that so hard to understand?”

She said the message that Congress needs to do better “has started to resonate,” as evidenced by the private meetings planning for the postelection negotiating run by the so-called Gang of Eight senators and a second group of unnamed congressional staff members.

Linda Oliver, deputy director of the Defense Department’s Office of Small Business Programs, who was instrumental arranging the event for several hundred at the Mark Center despite security challenges and parking difficulties, professed astonishment at hearing Sullivan “use the S word,” for sequestration. “We’re not supposed to talk about it,” she said.

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