New Program Educates Women on Contracting Opportunities

The U.S. government is the world's largest purchaser of goods and services so it's no wonder that many small businesses aim to fatten their bottom lines by landing a lucrative federal contract.

At least 23 percent of federal agencies' spending must go to small firms. Women-owned businesses have landed a surprisingly small percentage of government contracts, currently receiving about 3.4 percent, or $11 billion, out of the $400 billion in contracts awarded annually. Congress mandated that women-owned firms should garner at least 5 percent, but that goal has never been met.

Lawmakers and the administration have been feuding for years over a strategy to help more women win more contracts from the federal government, but a new private-sector initiative is aiming to close the gap while the differences fester.

American Express OPEN partnered with public policy group Women Impacting Public Policy to launch the Give Me Five initiative last month.

The national program has been designed to educate women business owners on how to apply for and secure federal procurement opportunities.

"We want to help women realize that if they have a project or service they might be able to offer something to the federal government," said WIPP President and COO Barbara Kasoff. "In our research before launching Give Me Five, we found that many women thought that it was too complex or confusing to try and get a federal contract, and if they were interested they didn't know where to start...We want to demystify the process for them."

Phase one of the plan provides resources and information to make it easier for women to register at the Central Contractor Registration, a requirement to become eligible to apply for the contracts. The project then intends to teach women the next steps after they've been properly registered. It will offer webinars, teleconferences and a mentorship program to help navigate the process, American Express OPEN Vice President Marcy Shinder told the Small Business Blog.

The goal is to educate 100,000 women per year on federal contracting opportunities.

"Give Me 5 matches first-time federal contracting participants with experienced mentors to help them register their business on the Central Contractor Registry to gain eligibility to apply for federal contracts," Shinder said. OPEN and WIPP have coauthored the guide OPEN Book: Government Contracting. An online version of the book, which includes articles about each step of the process, tips for applying for federal contracts and case studies is available here.

One of the highlighted firms in the book is the Daytner Construction Group, a construction management and consulting company representing building owners in overseeing aspects of building assembly including budgeting, construction and move-in.

Theresa Daytner's Maryland construction firm has grown thanks to government contracts. (Photo by Michael Edwards courtesy of American Express OPEN)

Theresa Alfaro Daytner runs the Mt. Airy, Md., firm. It's her third business. "I've always wanted to be a business owner from when I was very young. My father had businesses and I know it's a nontraditional career for a woman to be in construction but my father was a hair dresser and my mother studied geology...I grew up with different definitions of non-traditional."

Coming out of college, she thought about joining the carpenters' union because she liked the idea of using her hands. Daytner slept in a bed while growing up that she had built herself. But she got a degree in accounting because she felt skills learned there could be applied anywhere, adding that there weren't many colleges offering classes for would-be entrepreneurs when she went to school.

Theresa Daytner's Maryland construction firm has grown thanks to government contracts. (Photo by Michael Edwards courtesy of American Express OPEN)

She started a roofing company, got divorced, left the roofing firm and became a CPA. In 1990 she was working as a project accountant for a general contractor in D.C. when she met her second husband, who was the project manager on the job. In 2003 she set up Daytner Construction with her husband. At that point, she had four children under 10 and two teenage daughters. Her parents were also living with her -- her father had cancer and her mother had multiple sclerosis.

"It may seem like a crazy time to start a business, but my husband was great at project management, and I had the business acumen and experience," said Daytner. "The combination of talents and working together actually made it easier as parents to work as a tag team," so that they could always be there for their kids.

She credits the growth of her business to finding the right mentors, saying one woman treated her like a little sister and really showed her how to navigate the federal contracting process. "Many women know there are a lot of opportunities out there, but not a lot has been written about how to do it exactly," she said, adding "that's why I like the idea of Give Me Five."

She also benefited by becoming involved in business groups because she's found many contacts there. She is currently vice president of the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

But she says the key to understanding the federal contracting market is to "be very focused, develop a core competency and be good at it."

Daytner cautions that it's easy to lose your focus when thinking about selling to the federal government because, "there's a universe of possibilities. For example, what if I wanted to sell pens -- how would you focus that? -- and along with pens should you sell toner ink? It helps to get one thing down extremely well," and expand from there.

"Anyone getting into federal contracting should know that there can be a long lead time from considering the government as a client, to finding out who buys what you're selling to being in the right place at the right time and finally having someone pick you," she said. "Putting together a proposal can be one of the most expensive parts."

It's not an easy time to own your own business. Although Daytner is working on a two-year $52 million project for the General Services Administration and business is booming, the company shrunk this year from 12 to eight employees for both professional and personal reasons. But Daytner said, "we see ourselves growing. This is a perfect time for us. We're 8(a) certified and we'll be in that program for six more years." An 8(a) status helps the company get in the contracting door.

She hopes the Small Business Administration and lawmakers can resolve the issue of which women-owned businesses should be eligible for special treatment when pursuing contract dollars. She called the agency's plan to limit women-owned firms eligible for some contracts to four industries, "a slap in the face." The agency has since proposed a rule that would bump up those four industries to 31. Lawmakers are still not pleased.

WIPP's Kasoff said: "On the one hand we want to solve the problem legislatively and are committed to working on it that way, but on the other hand, simultaneously, we want to make sure that we do something very real and concrete to help women-owned businesses right now."

She added: "This project could open up new windows of opportunity for many women that they hadn't been anticipating. Everyone is going to feel the impact of our nation's current economic crisis and this may be one of the best concrete steps to move their business forward in this economic stressful time."

By Sharon McLoone |  October 21, 2008; 10:26 AM ET Gov't Contracting
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