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Entrepreneurs, Policy Makers Discuss What's Working and Share Advice

The Atlantic's 2014 Small Business Forum

By Martin Feeney

 

From within the ultra modern, concrete-exposed confines of Washington's 1776, a startup incubator, The Atlantic Magazine hosted its annual Small Business Forum.  Representative Judy Chu (D-CA) kicked off the morning's session with a bang. The recently passed defense authorization bill included sole source authority for the Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) Procurement Program.  This is a major victory for all women business owners and is something we've been advocating for many years. According to Rep. Chu, other changes for small businesses included in the defense bill are limitations on reverse auctions, changes to subcontracting, and review of contract bundling.

 

When the new Congress convenes in January, Rep. Chu shared her plans to introduce a bill to restart the refinance section under the SBA's 504 commercial real-estate loan program.  It allowed small businesses to cut costs by refinance existing commercial property loans at today's low interest rates, but it expired in 2012.  We look forward to working with her next year to make this a reality.

 

Many of the morning's panelists, including SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet, the National Journal's Fawn Johnson, 1776 Co-Founder Evan Burfield, and the founders of two of DC's favorite establishments, Ben's Chili Bowl's Nazim Ali and Port City Brewing Company's Bill Butcher, all agreed that access to capital remains the major obstacle for startups.  Port City's Bill Butcher recalled his attempts to get a loan to start Washington's first brewery since prohibition.  Despite success in the winemaking industry and having his personal finances in order, he heard the all-too-familiar refrain from the first ten banks he tried: "sorry, we only lend to businesses that are at least 24 months old."  His advice: "keep trying," he said, "and learn from your failures and mistakes."  Luckily for beer lovers, Port City was able to obtain an SBA loan with some business counseling. 

 

With respect to what the government is doing, the SBA's Maria Contreras-Sweet highlighted initiatives specifically designed for small businesses.  On lending, she noted that the SBA waived fees on 7(a) loans below $150,000 last year and has committed to continuing through September 2015.  According to her, this has resulted in increased loans to the smallest businesses, including those run by women and minorities.  To boost the number of microloans (loans up to $50,000), the SBA plans to enter into an agreement with credit unions, which will increase the program's reach into more communities across the country. 

 

On technology and how the SBA is innovating, Administrator Contreras-Sweet also announced SBA One. The online platform will automate the application and approval process for almost all SBA loans.  She likened the idea to what TurboTax did for filing taxes by making the entire process online and automated.  No more paperwork or headaches?  Sounds like a great idea me.  SBA One is expected to launch in the second quarter of 2015. 

 

From the private sector's perspective, Bank of America's chief small business lender, Robb Hilson, shared a couple of statistics about generational approaches to entrepreneurship.  Not surprisingly, millennials are the most confident when it comes to taking the leap and starting a business.  But they're also the most dependent on technology, with 44% saying they wouldn't be able to survive without a smartphone.  Surprisingly, on the other end of the spectrum, encore entrepreneurs (those aged 50+), often considered the luddites of the entrepreneurial world, is in fact the age group most likely to do so following the millennial generation.

 

At the end of each panel, each participant was asked for the one piece of advice each would give an aspiring entrepreneur.  I think Ben's Mr. Ali framed it perfectly: "know your community, know your neighbors, and know what they want."  He credited this advice, passed down from his father who founded Ben's Chili Bowl almost 60 years ago, with the famed restaurant's continued success.  They've been able to succeed in their community because they're a part of it and know their needs and desires. 

 

So here's my piece of advice: If you're ever in Washington and haven't already, make sure to support these local entrepreneurs...legends by grabbing a Ben's Half-Smoke and a pint of Port City's IPA. You won't regret it.

 

All told, the forum offered a wide range of perspectives, including experiences, lessons learned, opportunities, and thoughts on the state of small business in general.  I encourage you to watch the webcast if you haven't had the chance to do so yet.   

 

 

We Did It


By Ann Sullivan, WIPP Government Relations

 WIPP Works In Washington

December 2014


It was against all odds that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) included a vitally important improvement to the WOSB procurement program - sole source authority.   Yes, you read it right - the WOSB program will now have parity with every other small business procurement program. 

 

The law wasn't written that way back in the year 2000, but through WIPP's persistence for 14 years, we finally have a program that is sustainable.  First, of course, we had to get the program put into place.  If you recall, SBA delayed implementation for 11 years.  Then we went about changing the underlying law that was flawed.  First, we advocated for the removal of the dollar caps on the program--the original law limited contracts under this program to $5 million, rendering the program largely ineffective.  Since the caps on awards through this program were removed, the program has tripled in size. 

 

But, in our view, removing the dollar caps was not enough to make this program work.  The original law only permits contracts to be set-aside for women owned companies if the business is owned and controlled by women and two or more women owned companies will submit offers.  Meanwhile, every other small business procurement program allows contracts up to $4 million (or $6.5 million in the case of manufacturing) to be directly awarded to one firm.  That is a critical tool used by the federal government to award contracts to minorities, veterans and HUBZone firms to access the federal market.

 

Now that I have explained the long road toward making the WOSB procurement program work, we have a few things left to do.  First, agencies (in this case the SBA) have to promulgate rules to implement the law passed by Congress.  The SBA did this for the removal of dollar caps in six months, which is lightening speed for an agency.  Second, the FAR Council, which oversees contracting rules, has to approve the changes.  That takes additional time.  Third, all the contracting officers and small business offices in the government need to understand the change and start using it.

 

It is a long process, but not as long as we have been working on making this program successful.  And we certainly did not do this alone.  To thank everyone that deserves thanks would require pages but here are some special shout-outs.  If you ever responded to a WIPP Call to Action or ever wrote a letter to your elected officials on the WOSB program--THANK YOU, you made a difference.  To the fifteen organizations that supported WIPP on this effort--THANK YOU. If you attended the hearing during WIPP's annual leadership conference, you played a big part--THANK YOU.  Special thanks go to those on Capitol Hill who shepherded this program through the Congressional system- Senators Cantwell, Shaheen, Landrieu and Representatives Speier and Graves.  The staffs of the Senate and House Small Business Committee were instrumental in this success.  The SBA Administrators Mills and Contreras-Sweet made the success of this program a top priority and we will never forget their contribution.  Speaking of staff members, the dedicated SBA employees on the Government Contracting team and in the General Counsel's office deserve our gratitude.  The WIPP team and WIPP's board members have been solidly behind these successes devoting endless hours on these issues, ensuring that Congress heard directly from business leaders.  Lastly I am really proud of my team's efforts.  As I am sure you are aware, there has been very few votes in this Congress this year--this effort was particularly difficult and fraught with many twists and turns.

 

But in the end--WE WON--WOMEN BUSINESS OWNERS WON.  Now, for the first time in history, let's make sure the federal government meets its goal of 5% with women owned firms. 



Women Impacting Public Policy joined a recent White House Business Council Meeting to share how various policies are affecting women business owners across the country. The meeting included several White House staff along with top officials from the Department of Commerce and the Small Business Administration.

 

At the meeting, WIPP stressed the importance of capital access as the critical issue for women business owners looking to start and grow their companies, and highlighted WIPP's 2013 Annual Survey finding that it takes an average of two attempts for women business owners to secure funding.

 

Commerce Undersecretary for Economic Affairs, Mark Doms, agreed that the economy would be best served by giving business owners more access to capital. The Commerce Department's new strategic plan, America is Open for Business, reflects that priority by stressing innovation and investment.  

 

SBA Associate Administrator for Capital Access Ann Marie Mehlum concurred, saying her office will continue to identify opportunities to expand access while strengthening SBA's already available capital access programs. She went on to highlight the 7(a) loan program, which supported more than $15 billion in small business loans in FY13.

 

The meeting closed with a discussion of how trade can be used to fuel growth for businesses of all sizes. The Administration agreed there is a need for streamlining and simplification in exporting as well as engaging the women's business community on the value of selling goods and services abroad. Both of those priorities are at the front of WIPP's ExportNOW program that encourages women entrepreneurs to grow beyond our borders.

 

These meetings are open dialogues with policymakers, giving WIPP's advocacy team the opportunity to share ideas and concerns raised by WIPP's members.

WIPP is so proud to share the wonderful news that Donna Davis has been appointed as Regional Administrator for SBA Region IX. Donna, an entrepreneur, has over 3 decades of experience working with small businesses and corporations as well as in many public service positions.  Donna has been an active WIPP National Partner for over a decade.

 

The New Year is officially underway, but before letting go of the past the U.S. Small Business Administration highlighted their top blog reads by small business owners in 2013.  With hundreds of informational articles delivered to the public, their top five articles grasped and inspired the widest audience.  Coming in number five was an article about one of WIPP's co-sponsored campaigns, ChallengeHER: Creating Procurement Access and Opportunity for Women-Owned Small Businesses, with a whopping 26,039 views.

In 2013 WIPP, SBA, and American Express OPEN hosted 8 ChallengeHER regional and agency contracting events across the country with over 2,382 registrants.  Once again, ChallengeHER is gearing up for its second year of WOSB contracting events across the nation.  To find out more or to see if ChallengeHER is coming to a city near you, please visit http://www.wipp.org/?ChallengeHER   or email Erika Wilhelm at ChallengeHER@wipp.org.

 

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