In 2000 Jean Thiel had the odds stacked against her. She was a Native American woman, a mother and pregnant. In the eyes of the banks, her husband — a stay-at-home father — was unemployed, which made getting the funds to start her business even more of a struggle. More than 16 banks denied her a loan.
Fourteen years later, Thiel sat as a panelist at the ChallengeHER event as the president of her business, Belonger Corporation, a mechanical and plumbing contracting firm. Thiel shared her success story with other women small-businesses owners who are pursuing federal contracts.
Sponsored by Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP), American Express OPEN and the Small Business Administration (SBA), the recent conference drew 170 participants who came together at Manpower headquarters, 100 Manpower Place.
The goal of ChallengeHER is to teach women how to get certified as Women-Owned Small Businesses and increase their knowledge about federal contracting, said Shirah Rachel Apple, public information officer for the SBA. Contract specialists were invited to explain strategies for working with contractors, and small business owners shared their triumphs and mistakes in federal contracting.
According to Marianne Markowitz, regional administrator at the SBA, “Government contracting is really complicated, especially for small businesses, which is why we give them these opportunities through these certification programs.”
Launched in 2013, the Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program was developed to help women grow their businesses by becoming certified federal contractors. Markowitz said since the program began the revenue of certified businesses has more than doubled, from $100 million to $205 million.
According to Markowitz, the federal government spends $500 billion on goods and services, of which 23 percent, or about $115 billion, goes to small business contractors.
Markowitz added that 5 percent of that $115 billion is supposed to go to women, which is why the SBA is working hard to get women-owned businesses into the federal contracting program.
“We didn’t get to the goal… but we’ve been improving,” Markowitz said.
Thiel said the conference was not only informational, but also an opportunity for networking.
“I think it’s empowering to engage with other women entrepreneurs, whether they’re in their start up [phase], or whether they’re established business owners,” Thiel said. “It’s a relief to know that you’re not the only one out there.”
Like Thiel, Thomasina Ivy, president and CEO of TMI consulting, an information technology management consulting firm, also graduated from the 8(a) Business Development Program, an SBA program that helps socially and economically disadvantaged businesses grow.
Ivy told participants that attending events the SBA plans is not enough to make their businesses successful. She added that it is up to the individual to take advantage of the tools the SBA offers.
“You get from it what you take, and you have to be very specific as to what you want to get out of it,” Ivy said. “You have to go back to your office and put together a plan. It’s a commitment; it’s like a lifestyle.”
Thiel’s advice for women struggling to start or grow their own business is to keep believing in themselves
“There is no such thing as failure,” Thiel said. “Even if you don’t get to where you’re going, you are at least further ahead than if you did nothing.”
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