In 1994, Congress passed the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act, which among other things, aimed to make sure that the federal government gives businesses owned by women, veterans, and minorities a fair shake at winning government contracts.
One of the goals the law set: The government should aim to award 5 percent of its contracts for which small businesses are eligible to women-owned businesses.
It took a little more than two decades, but the U.S. government has finally achieved that goal. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) announced earlier this year that women-owned businesses secured 5 percent of federal contracts in fiscal year 2015, representing $17.8 billion worth of federal work.
The question now: What’s next for women entrepreneurs and the approximately 8 million workers they employ across the country? While women-owned businesses have made great strides in federal contracting, officials still have a lot of work ahead to create a truly equitable playing field. A 2016 study found women-owned businesses are still 21 percent less likely to win government contracts than similar companies managed by men.
“Now that we know the 5 percent is possible, we have a challenge to maintain, and dare we say, increase the goal,” said Carla Harris, chair of the National Women’s Business Council.
A look at the government’s most-recent efforts to meet its 5 percent goal
Fiscal Year % Goal Met
FY 2010 4.04%
FY 2011 3.98%
FY 2012 4.00%
FY 2013 4.32%
FY 2014 4.68%
FY 2015 5.05%
Courtesy National Women’s Business Council
While it can be difficult for women to secure government contracts, LaKeshia Grant-Shephard, founder of IT management and consultancy firm Virtual Enterprise Architect (VEA), is hopeful that last year’s figures will inspire more women to bid on—and win—government contracts.
“It’s a male-dominated industry, especially on the IT side,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of women entrepreneurs competing with men, but hopefully that will change.”
One thing that could help? More diversity within the government itself.
“It’s still a relationship-based market,” she said. “It’s important that more women advance to leadership positions in the government so they can consider other women-owned businesses. They’ll have a better understanding of the plight of other women.”
The D.C.-based entrepreneur knows all too well how hard it can be to run and manage a business that works primarily with the government. After all, she launched her consultancy business in 2007, the beginning of the recession. Now, she’s one of just a handful of women business owners who work in the IT sector.
“I launched [VEA] because I was frustrated working for large companies and how slowly they made decisions in trying to innovate,” she explained. “I wanted to create a boutique organization that didn’t waste resources and could help the government solve key problems.”
Since its launch, VEA has racked up an impressive number of awards, including the 2014 Small Business Administration’s Small Business of the Year for DC and 2013 Industry Solutions Provider of the Year by the Government Technology Research Alliance (GTRA).
While change takes time she hopes more women will end up joining the federal contracting industry. Her advice to other female entrepreneurs in the meantime? Take advantage of any and all available help.
“It’s important to take advantage of free resources—like the Procurement Technical Assistance Centers—and develop a firm and solid understanding of whatever market you want to enter,” she said. “There is a lot of turnover and movement in federal contracting, so it’s important to be prepared.”