Karen Herson is the founder and CEO of concepts, inc.a small communications company owned by disabled people and women.
During Women’s History Month in March, we celebrate women’s contributions to America’s continuing story, whether through academia, the arts, or industry. These are, of course, many women entrepreneurs – and as an entrepreneur, I am grateful for the paths they blazed for me and many others.
The rise of women-owned businesses
While women-owned businesses are still underrepresented, our numbers are increasing and, as a result, we are increasing employment for all people. Based on the Census Bureau Annual company surveyin 2020, 21.4% (1.24 million) of “employer companies” were owned by women.
This is a slow but steady increase from previous years. Collectively, these companies employed 10.9 people and had annual payrolls of $432.1 billion. When it comes to companies without paid employees, an estimated 41% (10.9 million) are owned by women. So combined, the estimated number of women-owned businesses in the US in 2020 was about 12 million.
In short, whichever way you slice and dice the data, female entrepreneurs are contributing significantly to the U.S. economy — gradually etching away the historic inequalities that stem from gender discrimination. For example, women traditionally have a harder time getting insurance financing and access to education and training to start and run businesses.
Many advocates, both women and men, have helped level the playing field over the years, and an important but sometimes overlooked dimension of their work relates to federal contracts, which have been critical to my company’s growth and have opened doors to rewarding work.
An important milestone occurred in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter issued Executive Order 12138: executive order required federal agencies “to take appropriate affirmative action in support of women’s entrepreneurship,” including promoting purchasing opportunities and providing financial and business-related management and training assistance. small business (WOSB), as a category, to the list of small business contracting targets it has negotiated with federal agencies.
While the next decade saw an increase in WOSBs receiving federal contracts, it was very slight, going from 0.2% in 1979 to 1% in 1988. Proponents called for additional measures to combat persistent inequalities. This resulted in the Women’s Property Act 1988which, among other things, gave SBA the legal authority to establish annual procurement targets for federal agencies with respect to both master contracts and subcontracts.
That same year, the Business Opportunity Development Reform Act of 1988 authorized the president to annually set a government-wide procurement target for small businesses at large small underprivileged businesses, that is, those owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. Shortly thereafter, advocates argued for a similar government-wide target for WOSBs.
Years later, the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994 (FASA) set a purchasing target of 5% for WOSBs. This goal went into effect in 1996, which happens to be the year I founded my company. My first customer? A federal agency committed to meeting its small business procurement goals. That client led to another, and soon I was managing multiple contracts.
Grow a business
Those early years were not without challenges. The growth required me to learn how to hire and effectively manage staff and shift to a “we” mentality as decisions now impacted more than just me. This was a new way of thinking and it took time to adapt.
The key to adopting a “we” mindset is involving employees in decisions to understand their impact on the organization as a whole versus one person or one project.
I also had to learn to let others take leadership roles and trust them to deliver, even if they might use different approaches to accomplish tasks. For many entrepreneurs, this does not come naturally, as our decision to start a business often stems from a desire for autonomy.
After the implementation of FASA, the number of federal contracts awarded to WOSBs increased, but still very slowly. So lawyers went back to work, and now competition for certain contracts is limited to companies certified under the WOSB Federal contract program.
My company is now one of those companies – and this month I’m honoring the many people who have helped level the playing field for us to compete and succeed in honoring federal contracts. While progress has been made, there is more to come.
Learning from others
In this spirit, I encourage my fellow female entrepreneurs to learn more about the WOSB Federal Contract Program and how it can benefit their businesses.
I also encourage them to take a moment to honor those who have taught and encouraged them on their entrepreneurial journey. For me, it starts with my mother, who, consciously or otherwise, served as a role model for me as I grew up. Just to name one example, she launched and produced her own show in the early days of cable television. I learned a lot from her – and continue to do so today, as she continues to be a leader in retirement through charitable work.
An important lesson my mom taught me is that while starting and running your own business takes initiative, you also need to know when to ask for help or join forces with others to maximize impact.
The key here is building and maintaining your professional network through involvement in industry or community organizations. While this can be challenging given the typical day in an entrepreneur’s life, I believe it is essential for long-term success – and when opportunities arise to partner with other female entrepreneurs, it brings greater benefit .
I think the advocates who worked to bring the WOSB Federal Contract Program to fruition understood this. By working together, they both benefited themselves and increased the opportunities for future generations of female entrepreneurs. As such, they are an important part of women’s history and American history, and I salute them every month.