Opportunities for Women in Federal Contracting

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Opportunities for Women in Federal Contracting

Speech Date: 
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Speech Location: 
Boise, Idaho
As Prepared For: 
Maria Contreras Sweet, SBA Administrator


Thank you for that generous introduction. And thanks to all of you for being here. This is a very special day for me. Two and a half weeks ago, Vice President Biden swore me in as the 24th SBA Administrator. President Obama even stopped by my swearing-in to welcome me and talk about the importance of small businesses to our economy.

Before I took this job, I was an entrepreneur like you back home in California. I started three different companies, including a community business bank. The President elevated SBA Administrator to a cabinet-level position, so women like us would have a seat at the table when key decisions are made about how to create jobs and grow our economy.

My job is to be your advocate and your champion in Washington. It's an opportunity of a lifetime for me. I immigrated to this country at the age of 5 from Guadalajara, Mexico, with my Mom and my five siblings. I didn't speak a word of English, and our family didn't have much in the way of money or material things. But what we did have was the belief that America is the land of opportunity.

My grandmother taught me that if you come to this country – and you work hard and do right by others – the American Dream can come true for you. I know you feel the same way, or you would have never taken that leap of faith to start a new business.

I mentioned that today is special. That's because this is my first trip as SBA Administrator. I'm thrilled that my very first stop on Day 1 is here in Boise with a room full of extraordinary women entrepreneurs. My mission in life is to do everything in my power to help you succeed.

We want your business to grow. Actually, we need you to grow. Small businesses create two out of every three new jobs in America. A great untold story in America is the growing power of women leading our country's economic comeback. A few years ago, for the first time in history, there were more women in the workforce than men. And nationally, we saw women-owned businesses grow by an incredible 20 percent in just five years. Today, 1 in 5 U.S. companies is owned or led by a woman. And the SBA is working every day to get that number even higher.

Several studies have found that businesses with leaders of both genders average higher receipts than businesses purely owned by men. In other words, diversity in the boardroom is good for business and good for America's GDP.

I actually began my career in public service 20 years ago making exactly this point. I was a Vice President at Westinghouse at the company's 7-Up/RC Bottling Company. I rose through the ranks to become an equity partner, but I eventually found a glass ceiling there that I couldn't crack. As fate would have it, I was appointed by the United States Senate in the mid-1990s to serve on the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission. Our job was to explore why the executive suite was locked for so many women and to suggest what could be done about it.

At the time, 97 percent of leadership positions at Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies were held by white men. This did not reflect America, and it sent a negative message to young professional women interested in starting careers in business. So the Commission issued a tough report. I think our most dire finding was that the situation was bad today, but tomorrow wasn't looking much better. There weren't many women in the leadership pipeline at top companies. Not only was this outdated thinking, it was bad for business. Corporate America was wasting an enormous talent pool.

One of the commission's key recommendations was that the government had to reduce barriers for women. Twenty years later, I'm delighted to lead an agency committed to doing exactly that for women entrepreneurs.

When President Obama took office, he tasked the SBA to issue a new rule to make it easier for women-owned small businesses to access federal contracts. Here's how I see it: If we want corporate America to become more diverse, the federal government needs to lead by example when it decides who to include in its supply chain. Under the new rule, Uncle Sam – for the first time – was to set aside specific contracting opportunities for women-owned businesses. It's about equal opportunity and leveling the playing field.

The United States government buys more than $400 billion in goods and services every year, making Uncle Sam the largest buyer in the world. That's an uncle you want to do business with.

The women's contracting rule can help grow Idaho's economy. We know how important small businesses are to this state. Ninety-seven percent of Idaho employers are small businesses. Six out of every 10 people who work in the private sector here work for a small business. So when small businesses succeed, Idaho succeeds.

The SBA guarantees loans on reasonable terms through our lending partners. We specialize in working with borrowers who are unable to obtain loans, for whatever reason, through conventional lenders. The Urban Institute did a study and found that women and minority-owned businesses are 3 to 5 times more likely to be approved for an SBA loan than a conventional loan. The SBA wants to be your partner, and I hope you leave here today equally excited about being ours.

Under President Obama, the SBA has guaranteed loans to nearly 58,000 women-owned businesses. Imagine Bronco Stadium filled to capacity with women entrepreneurs on a Saturday. Now picture a Boise State basketball game at Taco Bell Arena without an empty seat in the house. Those two venues together couldn't fit all the women who've gotten SBA loans during this administration. You'd still have an overflow crowd of 10,000 women with no place to sit.

Of course, we work with a whole lot of small business owned by men, too. Here in Idaho, the SBA has supported 3,200 small business loans to men and women worth $777 million dollars since 2009. Our Idaho customers would fill up Memorial Stadium for a Hawks baseball game.

Now, I know a lot of folks are concerned about our federal deficit. I'm proud to report that SBA's most popular product, our 7a loan, operates at zero subsidy. That means our key loan program is not costing the American taxpayer a dime. The SBA helps the federal government make an enormous difference at a very nominal cost.

Now maybe some of you are thinking: "That's all well and good, Maria, but my company has the capital we need for now. We just need more customers, because times are still tough for a lot of folks here in Idaho." Well, that's what today is all about: helping you find customers within the federal supply chain.

At the SBA, we call our core mission, "three Cs and a D." We're here to help you access capital, as I just discussed. We have a team of experts to provide counseling, whether it's starting a business or growing your business. The third "c" stands for contracts. We're here to help you land contracts with the federal government. Procurement isn't just for large corporations.

The "d" stands for disaster assistance. Tomorrow I'll be in Washington State with Senator Cantwell to talk about SBA's role in helping those affected by the tragic mudslide a month ago. Helping communities in crisis is some of the most important work we do.

OK, now a show of hands: How many people here have been awarded a federal contract? Now how many people would like to be awarded a federal contract? OK, that's more like it. You're in the right place then.

This is my call to action to you today: Get in the federal contracting game. The SBA can help you tap into the federal procurement network. I saw a study last year that found that women are less likely to ask for business loans out of fear of not being approved. Yet their financial profile was often better than their male counterparts. The "ask" is critical in the government contracting space. You must ask, you must know who to ask, and you must know how to ask. And you must be persistent—the first time, the second time, even the fifth time you are denied.

Here in Boise, you have a wealth of resources at your disposal to help you get certified and ready to compete for federal awards. The SBA has a great team in our district office, our Women's Business Center, our Small Business Development Center, and our partners in the SCORE program – seasoned executives who will mentor you and show you the way.

I'm going to leave you with a story of what's possible if you do decide to start asking. Corrine McKague owns Alarmco. It's a security company here in Boise. She has a three-word motto. You know what it is? "No means maybe."

Corrine's father taught her that. She had watched him run a successful security company growing up. Corrine has two sisters, and their Dad taught them they could do anything that men could do. Corrine started her business in 1995 with a $1,000 loan from her sister. At the time, the company provided security systems for homeowners and small commercial clients.

They did such a good job with their local accounts that they started landing national accounts with major players like Office Max and Grainger. So Corrine thought, "Why not offer our services to Uncle Sam?" SBA helped Alarmco get certified under our 8a program in 2003. Then, SBA started making phone calls on her behalf. Our people know contracting officers in every agency in the federal government, and our job is to make sure you know them, too.

Corrine got some "nos" at first, but she took it as a "maybe." She remembered what her Dad taught her. Eleven years later, guess how many federal contracts Alarmco has won? You aren't going to believe this. The number is 40!

Today, one-third of the company's total business is with the federal government. They have contracts in states spanning coast to coast, and as far south as Hawaii. They've provide security systems for the Air Force, the Navy, the Army Corps of Engineers, the FAA, the Bureau of Prisons … the list goes on and on.

Corrine tells an amazing story of learning that AlarmCo had been selected as one of four finalists to provide security at a place every American child reads about in their history book. She comes out of her presentation for that contract, walks into the lobby, and who does she see? Executives of Tyco. They are a global powerhouse and the behemoth of the security industry.

She thinks to herself, "Oh well, it was nice to be a finalist." Three days later, Corrine gets a phone call, and guess what? Today, a small business with 36 employees located right here in Boise, Idaho, is protecting America most treasured national monument. AlarmCo – not Tyco – provides the security at Mount Rushmore!

Corrine: You are an inspiration. So ladies: Never stop believing in your dreams. The SBA exists to help your company realize its potential. Working together, we can help you grow your business and grow our economy, too. Thank you and God bless America.