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Milestone for women contractors highlights industry challenges

3a CONTRACTING Larkin, GloriaMF10

Small-business owner Gloria Larkin says it’s been a long struggle for women business owners to land their share of contracts.

The federal government reached a milestone this week that brings good news for women in business. For the first time in history, the federal government met its goal of awarding 5 percent of its contract money to women-owned small businesses.

It seems like a small number, but women who have been fighting for more opportunities in the procurement process say this was more than 20 years in the making.

The Women Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program was implemented in February 2011 but the process began with a federal law passed in 1994 that set the 5 percent goal. The contract program was then created in 2000 but was dormant until the Obama administration.

Gloria Larkin has been part of that fight for 22 years. Larkin is president and CEO of TargetGov, a company based in Linthicum Heights that works with businesses that contract with government agencies. Larkin is also on the board of directors at Women Impacting Public Policy, which has advocated for the contracting program.

“We took this as a goal that we wanted to work on and actually get this law enacted so that we could benefit by it as women-owned businesses,” said Larkin.

Federal government contracts have always been a substantial part of Maryland’s economy.

In fiscal 2015, $17.8 billion or 5.05 percent of the federal government’s contracting dollars went to women-owned small businesses across the country. Maryland’s total federal procurement last year was $26.6 billion, or 7.7 percent of the state’s total GDP, according to the Department of Commerce. It’s unknown how much of that went to women-owned businesses.

“Our proximity to the heart of the federal spending machine gives businesses in Maryland a distinct advantage over companies in most other states,” said Larkin.

Despite that advantage, women have had a hard time getting access to government contracts.

Take Anita Brightman, who began her career in the defense industry and has been running A Bright Idea, an advertising agency in Bel Air, for 20 years. When she started her company, even though she had connections in the government contracting arena, she worked in the shadows, usually as a subcontractor to a large group. After 10 years, because the women-owned small business program was not active yet, Brightman certified her company for the 8(a) Business Development Certification Program, designed to get “disadvantaged” businesses on their feet. She said her company was disadvantaged because she was a woman.

Brightman’s company was in the program for nine years and graduated in December.

“The program did what it was supposed to do, it really helped us develop our business,” said Brightman. Her company is also certified now as a woman-owned business and gets 75 percent of its business from federal, state and local government contracts.

Navigating government contracts can be an arduous process for anyone who has not been through it before, and companies that have past history are more likely to get future contracts — two factors that make it difficult for women to compete.

The women-owned business program has a “rule of two” which means that if two certified women-owned businesses express an interest in a contract, it must be set aside for a business with that certification.

“If I see an opportunity, I’ll call some of the women-owned small business teaming partners, tell them to submit information and then we list them together,” said Lourdes Martin-Rosa, a government contracting adviser at American Express OPEN and president of Government Business Solutions, LLC, a government contracting firm.

Martin-Rosa also took advantage of the 8(a) certification when she was trying to get government contracts.

“There was no way for us to stand against the crowd because there was no set-aside program,” she said.

“I still think we have a long way to go in terms of the educational piece and giving women the tools they need,” said Amanda Laden, president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners and CEO of Amanda Laden International, a Baltimore consulting firm that has also done some government contract work.

Martin-Rosa, along with Larkin, is part of a grassroots effort led by American Express OPEN, WIPP and the Small Business Administration to raise awareness about government contracting opportunities for women across the country. The campaign is called ChallengeHER.

“We keep telling women, it is up to you to register your business as a vendor. It is up to you to learn how to do business with the federal government,” Martin-Rosa said, adding that the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Commerce have been leaders in awarding contracts to women.

But the law has its share of complications.

“There are rules and regulations around it that no other small-business program has,” said Larkin.

Among them is an industries list that until Thursday had only 83 approved industries out of hundreds of identified industries that were allowed to participate in the women-owned small business program. On Thursday the Small Business Administration announced that the list had been increased to 113.

It’s still not 100 percent, but “a step in the right direction,” said Larkin.

Now that the government has met its 5 percent goal, Larkin thinks it’s time to raise the bar to one that is not 22 years old.

“I think that this is a baseline,” she said, “We have set the standard of the floor, now it’s time to look ahead and move forward and hopefully upward and bring it into 2016.”