“Responsibility” was the operative word at the Association for Procurement Technical Assistance Centers (APTAC) Spring Membership and Training Conference. The 300 PTAC counselors, staff and managers gathered to attend the conference attended numerous presentations emphasizing responsibility– responsibility to their clients, to the federal procurement process, and to the public’s dollar. Although a variety of topics were addressed, discussions on women-owned business stood out as particularly important to me, perhaps because I can identify with the issues faced by female small-business owners.

As a former business owner, I am especially interested in the status of women-owned businesses in this country. When I founded Endless Pastabilities, a fresh pasta manufacturing company, I faced several challenges common to many women business owners; limitations on capitalization, lack of effective connections and people’s prejudices regarding the capabilities of women-owned firms. Because of these issues, my company was unable to obtain a loan to grow and expand.

When I heard the presentation given by Margot Dorfman, CEO of the US Women’s Chamber of Commerce, I was dismayed by the statistics she shared. The number of women-owned businesses (a business in which one or more women owns 51% of the business or its stock, in the case of a publicly-owned business, or a business in which management and daily operations are controlled by one or more women) has risen by nearly 29% over the past 10 years, but the revenues those businesses generated decreased by more than 10%. Furthermore, women, who are just over half the US population, own one-third of US businesses but receive only 3.4% of the federal contracting dollars. This seems to me to be a market failure. Could this discrepancy be alleviated through government contracting set-asides? (A small business set-aside is an item or service, which is procured exclusively from small business participation on more than a one-time basis.) Is there information that woman business owners aren’t getting? I was curious, and luckily, Ms. Dorfman had some of the answers I needed.

Congress did, in fact, create a set-aside program for woman-owned firms in government contracting. The federal government’s set-aside goal is to award 5% of contracting dollars to women-owned businesses. Unfortunately, this goal has never been reached. If the goal were to be reached, women-owned small businesses would have the potential to earn an additional $5.6B in federal procurements.

So, it seems to me that all of us working to support small businesses have a “responsibility” to provide women-owned businesses with the information, resources, tools, and support to improve their competitiveness and market position.

However, as Ms. Dorfman pointed out, this set-aside is only one tool designed to help create parity amongst all business owners. Women small business owners must also deal with issues such as other peoples’ prejudices regarding the capabilities of women-owned firms, their overall competitiveness, a lack of understanding about the federal system and market, the need for effective connections and relationships, and the limited availability of capital.

How do you think we can help women-owned small businesses increase their participation in the federal procurement process?

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