SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet

SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet Paul Morigi/Invision for JPMorgan Chase & Co./AP

SBA Reports Record-High Contracting for Women-Owned Firms

White House applauds effort in which seven agencies beat small business goal.

For the first time in 20 years of trying, federal agencies met their mandatory goal of steering small business contracts to women-owned firms, the Small Business Administration announced on Wednesday.

 “What we were able to achieve was because of that big lift across the country,” Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet told a gathering of contractors and agency officials at the National Press Club. “Women entrepreneurs can be the linchpin for a broader middle class, for upward mobility and social mobility.”

In fiscal 2015, federal agencies awarded 5.05 percent of eligible small business contracting dollars – or $17.8 billion – to women-owned firms, SBA said. Leading the way, Contreras-Sweet said, was the Commerce Department, where, under Secretary Penny Pritzker, women-owned firms won 13.4 percent of contracts, worth $557 million. “This achievement is no longer our glass ceiling,” but the new bar, Contreras-Sweet said.

Federal agencies also for the third year in a row met the broader governmentwide goal of awarding 23 percent of contracting dollars to small firms. Agencies in fiscal 2015 awarded 25.75 percent of contracts to small companies, SBA announced, or $90.7 billion. This supported 500,000 jobs, according to Contreras-Sweet.

SBA also broke the record for contracting with service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses, which doubled from 5 percent to 10 percent, and is now 4 percent of contract spending, said Contreras-Sweet, who presented certificates to four female federal contractors.

Seven agencies exceeded their small business goals, she said. They are the Homeland Security, State, Interior and Transportation departments, as well as the General Services Administration, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and SBA itself.

SBA’s success comes after women-owned businesses in recent years enjoyed the fruits of legislation that allows them to do more sole-source contracting “without an arduous bidding process,” she said, and compete for higher-award contracts. She announced a new Commerce report that adds 36 new industrial classification categories biddable as sole source.

The context for the contracting progress, Contreras-Sweet said, is that women-owned firms have been “fighting back” from the recession and lending freeze of seven years ago, while SBA is offering “record historical lending levels, record historical investment.”

The new figures show “what is possible when government comes together in a goal,” she said, crediting President Obama for stressing the women-owned firm issue during her first interview with him. Over the past seven years, small business contracting with “the world’s largest procurer” reached $640 billion, a $125 billion increase over the prior administration, she said.

The SBA chief spoke with three members of Congress: Reps. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., ranking member of the Small Business Committee; Judy Chu, D-Calif.; and Cheri Bustos, D-Ill. Though Velazquez celebrated the new records, she said more needed to be done. 

The reason it took 20 years to hit the goal for women-owned business, she said, was a “lack of outreach by federal agencies. Some contracting officers have not made engaging women businesses a priority. In other instances, women-owned businesses were not made aware of the contracting opportunities available to them.” She also singled out the Defense Department, the largest agency purchaser, for not meeting the goal for hiring women-owned businesses, saying, “We’ll be watching.”

Contreras-Sweet was also applauded in remarks by Valerie Jarrett, the senior adviser to the president who marshalled agency action on women-owned businesses. "What better way to kick off Women’s History Month,” she told the crowd. "Talent is ubiquitous, but opportunity is not."

Jarrett linked the SBA’s new report to the larger Obama agenda for women and working families over the past seven years, mentioning equal pay, science and technology education, college affordability, inexpensive preventative health care, ending domestic violence and sexual assault on campus, paid medical leave, child care and raising the minimum wage. “When we invest in women-owned business, we invest in the backbone of the country,” she said. 

Jarrett and John Sharoka, associate administrator of government contracting and business development at SBA, in interviews with Government Executive, said the effort to aid women-owned businesses is bipartisan. Asked whether it would continue if a Republican takes the White House, Jarrett said, “I certainly hope so. The accomplishment is not partisan, and there are small businesses in every community--it’s the economic engine. There will be increasing opportunities through federal procurement power.”