One of the wonderful things about my business is that it opens doors for me, and it also allows me to open doors for entrepreneurs. Nearly a decade ago, I joined the Kansas City chapter of NAWBO—the National Association of Women Business Owners—at the encouragement of fellow women business owners Mary Lou Jacoby and Shelly Kramer. I saw it as a possible networking venue. Little did I know at the time that my involvement with the group would grow, not just locally, but eventually nationally. Currently, I am the national Public Policy chair, and I will become the Chair of the national board of directors when I’m installed at our annual Women’s Business Conference in June in Washington, D.C. My involvement with NAWBO has been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve experienced other than being a parent and running my own business. And the trip I made to D.C. in April—one of many I’ve made there in the last year—has been part of that experiences. Here are the highlights of the most recent trip:
In April, members of NAWBO’s Public Policy and Executive committees descended on Capitol Hill for a series of meetings with legislators, White House executives and SBA officials. The meetings were designed (1) to open a dialog between policymakers and NAWBO that would give NAWBO an opportunity to share the concerns of women business owners and (2) to learn firsthand about the current legislation and proposals coming out of Washington intended to address the economic challenges small businesses are facing.
The NAWBO contingent included CEO and president Helen Han; Wendy Lopez, NAWBO chair; Kelly Scanlon, NAWBO chair-elect and public policy chair; Cynthia McClain-Hill, immediate past chair; Laura Yamanaka, treasurer; Deborah Stallings, secretary; Evelyn Strange, governance chair; Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, director; Julie Weeks, director and WBC conference chair; and Billie Dragoo, director.
Our discussions focused primarily on federal contracting opportunities for women-owned small businesses and access to capital. While we applauded the attention that is being focused on small businesses, especially women-owned small businesses, and the legislative efforts underway to help business owners grow their companies as we emerge from the recession, we also cautioned that there is sometimes a gap between policy that is being enacted and actually running businesses on the street. We encouraged more emphasis on the practical side of running a business and shared the day-to-day challenges of business ownership. We also noted that NAWBO is uniquely positioned to offer hands-on women business owners who can serve as a sounding board and help push policy that is beneficial to women business owners. In short, we noted that our group could help connect legislators and policy officials with real-world job creators.
The meetings began Tuesday afternoon when Weeks and Stallings met with Sen. Ben Cardin, who serves on the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. On Wednesday morning, NAWBO chair Wendy Lopez and NAWBO Governance Chair Evelyn Strange attended a breakfast with Sen. Richard Durbin, Senate Majority Whip, who recently co-sponsored S.3165, the Small Business Community Partner Relief Act of 2010, which enables the Small Business Administration to temporarily waive the matching non-federal funding requirement Women’s Business Centers and Microloan intermediaries face to receive funding from the SBA.
Wendy and Evelyn joined the rest of our group mid-morning as we were beginning our discussion with Rep. Nydia Velazquez, chair of the House Committee on Small Business. Rep. Velazquez is hard line on program accountability emphasizing, for example, that “we can’t give a blank check to banks and say lend to small business without any strings attached.” At the time of our meetings, the comment period was still open for changes to the proposed rule for the women’s federal procurement program. Rep. Valazquez challenged us to continue to exert pressure to get the program up and running. She also advised that we be in communication with the Office of Management and Budget because it makes recommendations regarding procurement. She said that decisions made in the OMB can’t be at the expense of small business. With a reputation for advocating relentlessly for small business, Rep. Valazquez said we could be certain she would continue her efforts to provide small businesses with the tools needed to succeed.
Our group then headed to the Russell Senate Office Building to meet with senior aides from the office of Sen. Mary Landrieu, Chair of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. We discussed federal contracting for women at length and expressed our general support for the proposed rule, albeit with concerns about its practical implementation. We also discussed S.2869, the Small Business Job Creation and Access to Capital Act of 2009; they noted that the bill needs additional sponsors.
Next, Merideth West, an aide for Sen. Olympia Snowe, the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, joined us. Again, our discussion centered on the implementation of the federal contracting program for women-owned small businesses. We were all in agreement that the program must maintain its integrity without being overburdensome to those it is intended to benefit. In addition to streamlining and reciprocity, we expressed our concerns and discussed the limitations created by the program’s contract thresholds and the shortage of procurement officers. Turning to access to capital and improving cash flow for recession-weary business owners, we applauded the Administration’s efforts to ease the credit crunch for small businesses by enhancing lending programs and offering tax credits through job creation, enabled via the HIRE Act. We cautioned, however, that not all business owners are in a position to take on more debt; likewise, many business owners have seen their profits evaporate, leaving them with losses that would exclude them from benefitting from tax credits. We asked her to let Sen. Snowe know that we encourage more opportunities for growth and revenue, in part through procurement as well as exporting opportunities.
In the afternoon, we attended meetings in the West Wing with Tina Tchen, the director of the White Office on Public Engagement; Elizabeth Vale, executive director of the White House Business Council; and Jonathan McBride and his staff in the Office of Presidential Personnel. We ended the day with a nearly hour-long meeting with SBA Administrator Karen Mills and several of her staff.
Tina Tchen said there is a “huge capacity-building need” with regard to small business, noting that we need to move businesses through the various growth stages and focus on entrepreneurial development so that they can reach a “place of competitiveness.”
SBA Administrator Mills said her agency is committed to growing small businesses and helping them create jobs. She encouraged an ongoing dialog between NAWBO and her office and noted that the SBA’s programs offered tools in the form of capital, counseling and contracts. She also said that women and minorities were three to five times more likely to be the recipients of SBA loans than traditional loans. With regard to exporting, Mills and her staff noted there is a need for exported services, not just products, and that many women own service businesses.
In all of our meetings, we stressed the importance of how small businesses, particularly women-owned businesses, are critical to economic recovery and jobs creation—and that we needed Washington to support the growth of these businesses by tying procurement and other stimulus activities to the growth of women’s entrepreneurship. We stressed that “access to capital” meant “access to opportunity,” not just debt.
This trip reopened a dialog that will continue through more visits and conference calls, including our annual Women’s Business Conference in Washington, DC, in June. We carried a message from women business owners who have their “feet on the street.” They listened. We listened. We all learned. Nothing changed the next day . . . except for one thing: we are communicating. The door is open, and follow up dialog is continuing.
For any women business owners who are reading this, you also have an opportunity to be a part of that in-person dialog. Register at www.nawbo.org for the Women’s Business Conference in Washington, DC, in June. I will be moderating a breakout session consisting of some of the individuals we visited in April. They will be speaking firsthand about the policy and legislation that impacts your business bottom line, and you’ll have an opportunity to ask questions and get answers. The dialog continues . . . join the discussion and be a part of the change.