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Women's Voices Magazine - Washington Watch - January 2015

posted Jan 5, 2015, 11:12 AM by Ann Sullivan   [ updated Jan 5, 2015, 11:15 AM ]
The Story Behind Women Business Owners Big Win
By Ann Sullivan

For women entrepreneurs interested in working with the federal government, you already know the big news about WIPP’s legislative victory. For the first time, ever, women-owned business will be able to receive small contracts directly and enter the fiercely competitive, but extremely lucrative federal procurement market.

Removing this barrier for women followed years of raising awareness of a long-standing issue: access to the federal marketplace. How this all came to pass is a good story intertwining the key pieces of change, educating, advocating, and making an impact. 

To begin, a little background. When WIPP was founded in 2001, one of our policy objectives was to remove barriers to markets for women entrepreneurs. Today, we focus on two markets in particular where women business owners lag far behind: the international market and exporting and the federal market through procurement. This is all about the latter, but I encourage you to look at WIPP’s work on exporting through the ExportNOW program.

To many of you, “federal procurement” may sound niche or just for the big companies of the world. You would be wrong. It is a $500 billion a year market, and almost a quarter of it is required to go small businesses—including thousands of contracts under $150,000. The government also buys everything – from janitorial services to consulting services to basic pens and pencils. It is not just planes, tanks, and ships. For many businesses it offers a great opportunity to expand, and, needless to say, a market that should include women entrepreneurs.

Enter the Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) Federal Contract Program. I saved you from the details with another article, but Congress created the program because woman-owned businesses were not getting contracts with the federal government. After a decade-long saga and two Administrations, it was put into place. And that is where we begin.  

Educate.

No one on Capitol Hill (or anywhere for that matter) can know all the ins and outs of government. Every campaign to make a change begins with education.

Since the WOSB program’s inception in 2011, WIPP has been educating Congress about how the program works – or in our case, how it could work better. This is the gateway to advocacy, the real first step to getting someone to listen. The best outcome is simply hearing, “Really? I didn’t know that. We’ll have to look into it.”

Our education efforts on the WOSB program went well beyond Capitol Hill. Agencies had to be educated about how to use the program and the foot soldiers of the contracting world, the contracting officers spread all across the country, needed the information. Sometimes educating means shouting the loudest, the most often, and building a strong alliance to expand your voice.

This was certainly the case with WIPP’s ChallengeHER campaign. A partnership between WIPP, the Small Business Administration and American Express, the ChallengeHER campaign tours the country educating women business owners, agency small business advocates, and contracting officers alike on doing business. I am proud to say the program, entering its third year, has been in 23 cities and reached nearly 10,000 women.

One key to educating is that it never stops. Spread your information broadly, not just with the only stakeholders you think matter. Make sure your membership or colleagues know the issues as well. The more people familiar with your topic, the more people you can ask to do something, to advocate.

Advocate.

In the crowded space that has become the advocacy world, thinking strategically and holding interest in your issue remain of paramount importance. The difference between advocacy and education is the “ask.”

In WIPP’s advocacy effort to change the WOSB program, it began with creating a strategy. First, we had to identify the stakeholders that would a) have the power to help and b) would support our effort. In the complex jurisdictional, Committee-based world of Capitol Hill, that can be tough. Our allies were the House and Senate Small Business Committee Chairs as well as Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Representative Jackie Speier, but as you will learn, we needed a few more.

For three years, including more than a dozen hearings, and countless meetings, our advocacy team kept pushing our request – even on deaf ears. We had other successes, but as policy advocates know, change takes time. Advocacy is a tireless world of hearing no, until you hear yes.

That can be both tiring and deflating. Which is why keeping interest high is critical. So let me address enthusiasm in our world: it’s amazing the energy that is generated when women get together to solve problems, whether in their own business or solving national problems for women business owners.   

Earlier this year, WIPP’s conference in Washington, DC, generated enthusiasm in a historic hearing chaired by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) on women’s business issues held on Capitol Hill.  You had to be there to feel it.  Hundreds of women business owners packed the largest hearing room in the Senate, and in turn the Senate showed up in force.  Hearings, usually pretty dry and orderly, were nothing like this one. In the words of one Senator, this was “more like a rally.”

But a hearing is not enough. Our members fanned out in typical “fly-in” fashion to push the message to their legislators. Immediately following the conference, Senators introduced legislation designed to remove a barrier to federal contracting for women business owners. House Members rallied behind it. Right before our eyes, we could see the impact our advocacy.

Make an Impact.

Although School House Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill” is how law making is supposed to happen, nothing is further from how Capitol Hill currently works.  Last year, Congress is passed the fewest number of laws in the modern history.  Of the more than 10,000 bills and resolutions introduced this Congress, a meager 5% became actual law. The truth is, getting a good bill with bi-partisan support is just the beginning.

If you want to make an impact—not simply raise awareness—you have to take your strategy much further. You have to be creative. The bill you support needs to get added to one of the “must-pass” bills Congress takes up each year, either funding (appropriations) bills or the annual defense authorization bill that keeps our military functioning.

And that’s exactly what we did. We made new friends on the Armed Services Committees and tried to get our issue included in one of the few bills that will actually be enacted. We appealed (in reality, pestered) to every lawmaker involved with the legislation, expanding our reach to include many others (like the obscure, but powerful “Rules Committee”), and redoubled our outreach efforts. Most importantly, we activated our army of women business owners nationwide alongside more than a dozen of our partner organizations. Every step of the way, however, was more education. We had to keep WIPP members apprised not only of the issue, but also of the process, so they could effectively advocate.

Change.

And so, against all odds, Section 825 of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act provides for an important change to the WOSB program. It grants sole source authority, allowing women-owned small businesses to be directly awarded contracts (up to $6.5 million). A critical tool for breaking into the market, sole source authority was available to all the other small business contracting programs – except the women’s program. Simply put, it will allow more women to win federal contracts and open the market to the growing number of women entrepreneurs.

It took years – literally years – of education and ongoing advocacy efforts to get the issue on Congress’ radar, get legislation introduced, and then get it enacted. This is the magic formula of actually making change on a national stage.

So the next time you see an advocacy organization’s issue alert, read it. That’s education. And when you receive your invite to annual conferences, attend. That’s advocacy. If you do both, you are well on your way to making an impact.

This article originally appeared in the January edition of Women's Voices Magazine, available here.

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