By Virginia Bridges The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
When Caroline Szymeczek first started the process to become a vendor for the U.S. government, the world's largest buyer, the daunting process brought her to tears.
Then, she said, she remembered there was help out there.
"It bubbled up from the depths," of her thoughts, said Szymeczek, 50, president of the Chapel Hill-based Integrated Learning Innovations, which provides science education and training solutions to individuals, groups and institutions.
Szymeczek called the N.C. Small Business and Technology Development Center for help. Then, under the guidance of a Procurement Technical Assistance Center counselor, she self-certified her company as an economically disadvantaged, women-owned business. She registered on the online government database System For Award Management and navigated the many related steps.
The efforts paid off as Integrated Learning Solutions successfully won its first government contract about a year ago, allowing the company to tap into the $83.1 billion paid to small firms for federal contracts in 2013.
The move diversified the company's customer base and broadened its impact, Szymeczek said.
Szymeczek was among the speakers Aug. 19 at the Raleigh ChallengerHer event to educate female entrepreneurs about such opportunities.
It also offered best practices for taking advantage of the Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program, which decreases the barriers to entry for some female-owned firms to sell to the world's largest buyer.
In general, the federal government seeks to award 23 percent of federal contract dollars to small businesses, which includes a goal of 5 percent of those funds to women-owned businesses in certain industries.
In 2013, the government fell short of the goal and awarded 4.32 percent of prime contract dollars, about $15.4 billion, to women-owned ventures, said Aditi Dussault, special advisor at the U.S. Small Business Administration. However, it was an improvement over previous years.
"We have been hovering around 4 percent for the past three or four years," she said at the conference. "It's a demonstration that we have made progress, but we obviously have more work to do."
In spring 2013, the SBA, Women Impacting Public Policy advocacy organization and American Express OPEN launched a joint initiative to provide federal contracting workshops for female entrepreneurs across the country.
More than 100 women attended last week's five-hour ChallengeHer workshop at N.C. State University's McKimmon Center.
The female entrepreneurs owned businesses that offered services from writing and branding to commercial cleaning and placing highly skilled scientists and researchers.
A presentation by Rebecca Barbour, the SBTDC Procurement Technical Assistance Center counselor who helped Szymeczek, outlined some of the government contracting basics and best practices.
Owners should define their service and target market and determine whether they will make money.
They should also research rules, agency spending patterns and active opportunities, through database websites such as government site Federal Business Opportunities and FedBid, a private company that aims to optimize government e-commerce, Barbour said.
Owners also need to get their companies certified as a women-owned small business, identify their North American Industry Classification System code and obtain a D-U-N-S number, which is a nine-digit number used to identify a business' physical location. They also need to register in the federal online database, System for Award Management, known as SAM.
A panel of representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency in Research Triangle Park, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro and Camp Lejeune said that to prepare for and seek federal contracts, owners should have an accurate and up-to-date SAM profile, identify and understand their niche and look for an opportunity that is a good and realistic fit for their company.
Jo Rozier, small-business specialist with the Marine Corps Installations East at Camp Lejeune, said contracting officers in his office try to determine whether a business is qualified, offers the right goods or services and if it has successfully offered those things previously.
The second panel included Szymeczek and Helen Calloway, managing director of Calloway & Associates, a Raleigh firm that provides financial, information technology and other services to government and private organizations.
Since it opened in December 2005, Szymeczek's Integrated Learning Innovations has been successful in getting grants for its clients -- mainly universities -- and helping them run and improve outcomes in science training programs.
In an effort to expand that impact, Szymeczek and her husband and co-owner reached out to the National Science Foundation. They proposed a strategic planning process to help the foundation ensure improved outcomes internally and from grantees.
In September 2013, Integrated Learning Innovations won a $61,000 contract with the National Science Foundation.
Calloway & Associates has won more than 30 federal contracts through networking and writing proposals, Calloway said.
Companies should respond to government agencies' "sources sought" requests, in which federal organizations seek information on an unfamiliar product or service.
Companies should also develop relationships with firms that might be able to partner and complement their agency on a project put out for bid.
Lynne Beaman, CEO at Raleigh-based environmental consulting agency Highlands Environmental Solutions, said the event encouraged her government contract ambitions for her 11-year-old company.
"I was particularly thrilled about (hearing from an EPA contracting official) and really excited to learn that they do hire a fair amount of women-owned small businesses," she said.
Other helpful information includes learning about research sources, such as the Federal Procurement Data System, where she can search what companies are bidding on what she is selling, and the SBA's Sub-NET website with subcontracting solicitations from prime contractors and other agencies.