Certification Matters

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For women, certification can spur entrepreneurial success.

Judy DeAngelo has good reason to smile. Her privately held company, JADE Carpentry Contractors, has dramatically grown over the years, with contracts for projects at O’Hare Airport, Sears corporate office, Stroger Hospital, Cook County Jail and Soldier Field.

Armed with almost every small business certification available, including Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE), Disadvantaged Business Enterprise and SBA 8(a), she seeks and frequently wins contracts from government and large corporations ranging in size from $10,000 to $1 million or more.

“There’s no question I’d be a much smaller enterprise without the certifications,” she affirms, noting she has 11 of them. “They’ve given me the base from which to grow.”

The fact is that government entities, large corporations and some major non-profit institutions are eager to do business with women- and minority-owned businesses. Federal, state and local government agencies offer what amounts to billions of dollars in contracts to purchase products and services from these companies.

An advantage, before a woman business owner begins doing business with the government or a corporation, is to obtain the proper certifications. Small business certifications have been likened to professional certifications; they document a special status that can help a business owner be more competitive for contracts.

Most certifications are available through third-party certifying organizations such as the Chicago-based Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) and specific government agencies or corporations. To be eligible for WBE certification, a company must be at least 51 percent owned, operated, managed and controlled by one or more women who are U.S. citizens.

Ownership isn’t the only criteria depending on the certification obtained. Technical expertise, residency, years in business, company size, number of employees and profitability may impact whether a woman business owner qualifies for WBE certification.

The process of getting certified is hard work and can take weeks or months. For her first certification, Ms. DeAngelo recalls spending weeks to assemble the required materials, such as loan documentation and copies of leases and income tax returns. Because every certifying body has its own criteria, each application must be completed separately.

“You must check and re-check your paperwork,” Ms. DeAngelo affirms. “If they ask for three years of tax returns and you provide only two, it’s back to the drawing board. The paperwork has to be complete.” Tip: Keep copies!

There are typically nominal costs involved for certification applications with third-party entities such as Women’s Business Enterprise National Council and National Minority Supplier Development Council, as well as some public-sector certifications, most of which require annual recertification. Workshops and business counseling are also available through organizations like the WBDC to help you determine which certifications are right for you and better understand the requirements and navigate the process for each certification.

Once the application for certification is submitted, the certifying body undertakes a thorough review that often includes a mandatory site visit to ensure the company is owned and controlled by who the applicant puts down on paper. “Without a proper evaluation, certification would be open to fraud or abuse by ineligible companies,” states attorney Michelle Kantor, a partner in McDonald Hopkins, LLC law firm, who’s helped hundreds of women, minority and veteran-owned business owners get certified.

Ms. Kantor is surprised that more women business owners don’t seek certification. She notes the common misconception that most contracts go to businesses in the construction field, but in truth, “there’s an opportunity for business owners in almost every industry you can think of – marketing, technology, professional services, construction, janitorial services, court reporting, medical laboratories, et cetera. You name it and a government agency is probably buying that type of product or service.”  Federal, State and local government utilize small business goals to maximize participation of women, minority businesses and disadvantaged businesses.

Ms. Kantor likens certification to getting a driver’s license. “Before you get behind the wheel, you’ve got to learn the rules of the road,” she states. “The same is true with certification. You have to learn and abide by the rules – failing to understand the certification rules can lead to losing your license.”

Once a certification has been approved, the real work begins. Getting certified doesn’t guarantee contracts; it simply opens doors so a business can begin marketing its product or service.

Editor’s Note: Next month, we’ll address the most effective and efficient ways for a certified woman business owner to win contracts.

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About Hedy M. Ratner

Hedy M. Ratner is founder and co-president of the Women's Business Development Center, the largest, oldest and most comprehensive and successful women's business assistance center in the U.S. She blogs about entrepreneurship, working women, success stories, small business and more in “Windows to Business Success.”