8 (a) Certification Can Help a Small Business Grow

By Vicki Vaughan
San Antonio Express-News

A small business can take a big step toward winning federal contracts if it obtains an 8(a) certification from the Small Business Administration.

The certification is designed to help small, disadvantaged businesses gain a foothold in government contracting. But getting the designation isn’t easy.

The program is open to firms that are at least 51 percent owned and controlled by entrepreneurs who have been socially and economically disadvantaged because of their race, ethnicity or gender.

The SBA’s San Antonio office held a recent seminar to help business owners learn more about the program.

Adam Rodriguez, president of family-owned Radan LLC of Floresville, which offers facilities support services, including grounds maintenance and pest control, attended the seminar and said it was helpful.

“The 8(a) is an important certification for a small business,” Rodriguez said. “It’s kind of like getting into Harvard.

“Competing for federal work can be intimidating,” he said. “But if you can get past that, there are good opportunities.”

Rodriguez’s company, founded in 2008, now does business with such high-profile clients as the Texas Department of Transportation and the city of San Antonio.

“This year I think we’re ready financially” to earn the 8(a) certification, he said.

Diana Davis, owner of locally-based IntegriWard LLC, which handles facilities maintenance and management, said she already has filed an application for 8(a) certification, yet the seminar was a help. She learned about some valuable websites listing contract information that she wasn’t aware of.

SBA District Director Pamela Sapia said business owners who gain the 8(a) certification enter into a nine-year program. They’re assigned an SBA business opportunity specialist, who meets with them on an as-needed basis after an initial orientation.

The nine-year program is divided into two phases: a four-year developmental stage and a five-year transition stage.

“For the first four years, they can go out and get as much 8(a) business as they can handle,” Sapia said.

In the program’s fifth year, the SBA requires the business to have a mix of 8(a) work and 15 percent non-8(a) work.

The percentage requirements for non-8(a) work increase every year, rising to 55 percent in the ninth and final year of the program, Sapia said.

After nine years, the applicants graduate from the program and can no longer receive new 8(a) contracts, Sapia said.

The SBA district offices monitor and measure the progress of 8(a) companies with annual reviews and evaluations.

Rodriguez’s company, Radan, doesn’t have any commercial contracts now. But he said, “The 8(a) program teaches you how to diversify, so that by the fifth or sixth year, I could have that.”

Also, 8(a) companies may market themselves to certain government agencies and win sole-source contracts valued at up to $4 million for goods and services and $6.5 million for manufacturing.

In addition, 8(a) firms can form joint ventures to bid on contracts.

To gain 8(a) certification, the business owner must show he or she is “socially disadvantaged” and has faced racial or ethnic prejudice or cultural bias, including African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, certain Asian-Americans and others.

Applicants who don’t fall into one of those groups must show how they have been discriminated against.

IntegriWard’s Davis said she provided documentation to show that she faced bias because of her gender.

“You have to show that you were hurt financially,” Davis said. In her application, she said there were some years that she was held back from career advancement for various reasons, including her status as a single parent.

Davis said she’s optimistic that she’ll win the certification, as she holds some contracts with the government now, including maintaining emergency generators for a Veterans Affairs’ facility in Alabama and performing preventive maintenance on generators for the Del Rio sector of the Border Patrol.

“I’m constantly trying to build business,” Davis said. “Once you achieve your 8(a), there are more ways to win contracts.”

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