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Signature Achievements: 15 Years in the Making By: Ann Sullivan, WIPP’s Chief Advocate

Monday, March 07, 2016  
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Signature Achievements: 15 Years in the Making

By: Ann Sullivan, WIPP’s Chief Advocate


Two announcements by SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet marked the culmination of 15 years of advocacy – and all in the space of two days. For the first time ever, the federal government met its goal of awarding 5% of all contracts to women-owned companies. The following day, the WOSB procurement program, which helped make reaching the goal a reality, was expanded from 83 to 113 industries. The substantial increase means more than a third of all industries are included in the program.  


From a WIPP standpoint, these two major steps represent our organizational focus and dogged determination. Both are required to make results happen, especially those efforts that appear futile on the surface. Meeting the five percent goal and expanding the program certainly fell into that category (what, with a White House in opposition, lawsuits, and restrictions faced only by women entrepreneurs).


But for the WIPP members that believed we would ultimately prevail, what a return on investment! The government now contracts $18 billion a year with women-owned small businesses, largely due to this program. In 2001, when we started this effort, contracting with women-owned firms amounted to just 2.5% percent, or roughly $5 billion. Without the WOSB procurement program, it was just a “nice to do” from a federal agency perspective. From a woman-owned business perspective, there was no great mechanism to access the federal market. Very few women were accepted as 8(a)’s, relatively few are veterans and not everyone can locate their business in a HUBZone area. Basically, until this program was put into place, women had to compete in a much larger pool – either “full and open” competition or as a small business set-aside.  No one expressed much optimism that the government would ever meet its 5% goal for women. 


So, we went to work. The effort spanned three Presidential terms, eight Congresses and five SBA Administrators. The WOSB procurement program, as originally proposed, was deeply flawed. Only four industries would have qualified compared to the 113 industries that are in the program today. These industries are deemed to be underrepresented based on awards to women-owned businesses. Turning this portion of the program around took 11 years. 

The program, as implemented in 2011, contained two major barriers to effectiveness. One, limits on the size of awards to $6.5 million, and two, no mechanism for sole source awards. Tackling both were immediate priorities for WIPP. The Congress, with champions like Senators Cantwell and Shaheen and Representatives Velazquez and Speier, removed the award caps and gave the program sole source authority (a recent addition).  Both of these efforts required work not only with the House and Senate Small Business Committees, but also with the powerful House and Senate Armed Services Committees. 


One of the last pieces of the puzzle was updating the findings of disparity, which was last reviewed in 2007. The Department of Commerce updated the study just last month and the findings were shocking. Women are 21% less likely to receive federal contract awards than their male counterparts and 85% of the contract dollars are awarded in industries where women-owned firms are underrepresented. Those statistics are the backbone of the expansion of the program announced this week.


Achieving this major legislative and regulatory success involved a strategy not unlike a game of chess. Outmaneuvering opponents, keeping support from waning or fracturing, and good intelligence from friends inside and outside the government proved to be a considerable task. 


We had advocates at every level – SBA Administrators like Karen Mills and Maria Contreras-Sweet made this program an agency priority. As mentioned above, the women in Congress really stepped up. President Obama delivered on his promise to make this a top priority when he came into office. WIPP’s coalition of organizations that support its policy agenda lent their voice to each and every effort — generating comments in the Federal Register, signing onto letters to the Congress and the agency. We called on individual WIPP members located in strategic states to contact their Senators (you know who you are) when we needed their input. And in the end, it was the individual voices that really mattered. To the women business owners who wrote letters, testified before Congress, did a Hill visit during WIPP’s annual conference—thank you.

WIPP’s unwavering focus paid off in shaping the program to the success it is today.  Now our task is to make it work. Although we are moving to access to capital as our next big set of issues to tackle, the roadmap for success was developed by our work on the WOSB procurement program. 


It just goes to show that when 10 million women business owners are determined to get results, there is no stopping them.


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