What's in store

Cathy Jett is the business editor at The Free Lance-Star, and specializes in covering the area's retail scene. You can email her at

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New law may give women-owned small businesses a boost

Vying for federal contracts used to be a vexing process for a Stafford County woman-owned business.

Acolyst, founded and owned by Ellie Nazemoff, had to split complex projects into smaller tasks due to caps on federal contracts awarded through the Women Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program.

“For each task underneath the overall project, we would spend thousands of dollars in marketing for proposals, meetings, and other engagements to receive award of the following task,” said Valeh Nazemoff, her daughter and the company’s vice president, in an email.

“It had become a continual start–halt scenario, not only frustrating for us, our employees, partners, but also our government clients.”

That’s about to change.

A new law has finally removed the caps, which were $4 million for goods and services contracts and $6.5 million on manufacturing contracts.

Now Acolyst can focus on developing the plan it wants to deliver instead of “dollar thresholds,” Valeh Nazemoff wrote. Plus, it will give the company, which delivers executive-level business technology services, more control over its projects.

The Women Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program was launched in 2011 to ensure a level playing field for women-owned small businesses competing for federal contracts. But the caps, which had not been placed on similar programs such as those for small disadvantaged businesses, had been seen by many as a stumbling block.

“As a woman-owned business, I viewed [the caps] as a slap in the face,” said Lourdes Martin–Rosa, an American Express OPEN Advisor on Government Contracting. “Women can do federal contracts. Now we’re finally equal.”

The program’s goal is for women-owned businesses to get a total of 5 percent, or roughly $20 billion worth, of federal contracts each year. But in fiscal year 2011, federal agencies awarded only $16.8 billion in federal contracts through the program. That was just under 4 percent of total federal contract dollars during that period, according to the Small Business Administration.

Rebecca R. Rubin, president and CEO of Marstel–Day LLC in Fredericksburg, said her environmental company would have liked to have gone after larger contracts for the consulting services it provides, but contracting officers were prohibited under the cap from issuing contracts above certain levels.

Eliminating the caps “opens up a whole new universe of contracting opportunities for Marstel–Day, in terms of both number and size of contracts,” she said.

Currently, there are more than 2 million women-owned businesses in the United States, but less than 100,000 are registered to do business with the federal government, Martin–Rosa said.

Yet opportunities to do business with the federal government are wide and varied. The Pentagon, for example, has a Starbucks, a McDonald’s and a dry cleaner inside its walls. And military bases, which are like small cities, need janitorial services, landscapers and office supplies.

“The federal government doesn’t produce or manufacture anything but money,” Martin–Rosa said. “Everything else is purchased from the public sector. It is the largest purchaser in the world.”

She said federal contracts can be lucrative revenue boosters for women business owners. According to recent American Express OPEN government contracting survey, 42 percent of women-owned small business contractors generate revenues in excess of $1 million. Only 1.8 percent of all small businesses have achieved that level of success.

Martin–Rosa added that the federal government is one of the best customers of her business, Government Business Solutions, because the Prompt Payment rule requires federal agencies to pay vendors in a timely manner or face a penalty.

To help women better understand the ins and outs of applying for federal contracts, American Express OPEN, which provides tools and information for small businesses, and Women Impacting Public Policy, which advocates for women and minorities in business, are sponsoring a website called It provides a wealth of information, free training webinars and policy updates on how to apply for federal contracts.

“We want to make 2013 an historical government contracting year for women-owned businesses,” Martin-Rosa said. “I think we can finally reach the 5 percent goal.”

Here are Lourdes Martin–Rosa’s tips on how to apply for federal contracts:

  • Register your business in a portal called System for Award Management (SAM). This helps your business get noticed by government agencies. Registration is free but requires specific company data (DUNS number, NAICS code, etc.).
  • Get your business certified by visiting to determine if your firm qualifies for the Woman Owned Small Business certification as well as others.
  • Learn which government agencies buy your type of products and services before responding to any solicitation. Successful government contractors visit, where they can find out who the federal government buys from and for how much.
  • Use all available resources to find information that will save you time and money. For example, you can find how-to articles, guides, videos, and tips on how to do business with the government on American Express OPEN Forum website,
  • Free monthly webinars are available at, a website for women-owned businesses seeking federal contracts created by Women Impacting Public Policy and American Express OPEN.