What Is a Certified Woman-Owned Business?
A certified woman-owned business is a designation given to businesses that are more than half owned and run by women. It’s used to help qualify how different organizations spend their money. For instance, a variety of agencies and businesses may designate a certain percentage of their contracts go toward certified businesses as a way to fulfill certain quotas. The federal government has stipulated that 5% of their contracts go toward certified women-owned businesses.
There isn’t just one certification for women business owners, and not every organization will require the same certifications. When it comes to federal contracts, the gold standard is the Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) certification or the Economically Disadvantaged Women-Owned Small Business (EDWOSB) certification. Both of these are issued by the Small Business Administration (SBA), a federal agency created to protect the interests of small business owners.
Considering there are so few women-owned businesses being selected for major projects, the WOSB or the EDWOSB can be the key to being approved for a wide variety of opportunities. This is particularly true if you operate in a male-dominant space, such as engineering or tech. Women offer leadership that can both complement and improve upon existing systems. It can be the cornerstone of changing the economy for the better.
However, the federal certifications aren’t the only options available to women business owners. You can also consider the benefits of a National Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE), a certification that is often accepted for a variety of state, municipal, or local contracts.
Women-Owned Business Third-Party Certifiers
A third-party certifier is a group that’s been granted permission by the SBA to approve WOSB applications. In Illinois, you can go through the following:
- Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC): WBENC promotes diversity whenever possible and helps businesswomen become certified to go further in their careers.
- U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce (USWCC): This organization gives women in business the resources and work they need to grow in confidence and leadership.
- National Women Business Owners Corporation (NWBOC): This organization aims to unite millions of women-owned businesses to advocate for the advancement for all.
- El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce: This resource connects, advises, and coaches women business owners. It also advocates for female entrepreneurs and provides Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) and Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE) certifications.
These groups perform a wide variety of services for women in business, including advocating to advance their interests in both state and local laws. You can also apply for the NWBE through one of these groups as well.
Please note that if you do choose to certify through a third-party agency instead of the SBA, you will still need to alert the SBA of your status so it can be filed on your behalf.
What Are the Qualifications to Become a Certified Woman-Owned Business?
You can certify your Illinois business for a WOSB if you meet the following criteria:
- More than half (51%) of the company is owned and controlled by women
- Women owners must be US citizens with official documentation
- The person at the top of the hierarchy must be a woman with technical expertise
- The company must qualify as a small business per the SBA’s rules
If you’re hoping to qualify as an EDWOSB, you’ll need to prove that each individual woman business owner of the company has the following in Illinois:
- Net worth that is $750,000 or less
- A 3-year adjusted gross income average of $350,000 or less
- A fair market value of each individual woman business owner’s assets of $6 million or less
The EDWOSB has several exceptions, depending on how the owners have invested its revenue and the source of its income. If your income average was artificially inflated by a one-off event (e.g., an inheritance, etc.), then you may still qualify for an EDWOSB. There are no exclusions for the fair market value of assets though.
How Do You Become a Certified Woman-Owned Business in Illinois?
Certification in Illinois is based on whether your application is approved by the powers that be. Because the process can be involved and the fees can be expensive, we recommend first taking the preliminary test offered through the SBA’s website.
Please note that women applying prior to summer of 2020 through the SBA have the option to self-certify through their website; however, after June 30, businesswomen will no longer be able to self-certify. Instead, you will have to certify through an approved third-party agency. Alternatively, you can choose the SBA’s Women-Owned Small Business federal contracting program and apply for certification through their online portal. The SBA application involves two steps:
- Visit sam.gov (the System for Award Management)
- It’s free
- You will have to wait at least 72 hours before step 2
- Visit certify.sba.gov and complete the form
SBA’s online program is free to use, though you will still need to pay the required fees if you’re interested in receiving an actual certificate through a third-party, since the SBA does not provide the certificate itself. A certificate is not required for federal government contracts — you only need to be officially certified and listed on their women-owned business database.
If you’re still unsure about the specifics of the SBA’s Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contracting Program, you can call (800) 827-5722 or email answerdesk@SBA.gov. To speak to a representative, be prepared to wait approximately 5-10 minutes for the automated message to end and depending on their call volume, you may have a longer wait.
There are a number of details beyond the primary regulations that may exclude you from certification, so it helps to gather all the documents and answer as many questions before the official application. You can follow the SBA's checklist to make sure you have everything you need prepared in advance. You can also consider talking to a third-party certifier, especially if you’re not certain whether your company meets a certain requirement.
Going through a third-party may cost more than going through the SBA, but the process can be a lot smoother. Instead of waiting for work from a federal branch of the government, as you would if you certified through the SBA, you can work with women at an advocacy group who want to see you get ahead. Contacting the different chapters in your area and speaking with members or volunteers can be a good way to determine the right path for you.
Whether you’re applying for the EDWOSB or the WBE, you can expect a final decision to come through within 90 days. The average is about 30, but can be earlier or later. If you apply at a quieter part of the year or your application is more straightforward than most, you may have your approval within 15 days.
Illinois Woman-Owned Business Certification Resources
The state of Illinois offers additional opportunities for certification beyond the national options available, depending on where you live and what industries you serve.
Department of Central Management Services
You can apply for the Business Enterprise Program (BEP) certification if you meet the following qualifications:
- At least 51% owned and operated by women
- Have annual gross sales of less than $75 million
- All owners are US citizens or legal aliens
This certification is good for seven years and was developed to help women-owned businesses gain more exposure to the state procurement process.
City of Chicago
The City of Chicago offers the Minority/Women’s Business Enterprise (M/WBE) certificate for Chicago-owned businesses. The criteria is similar to that of a WOSB, and the certification is good for five years. This can help you gain access to citywide opportunities and contracts available for businesswomen in the area.
Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT)
The Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) certification can give you additional consideration for state projects funded by federal dollars. This certification is given through IDOT but enforced by the federal Department of Transportation. It includes aviation, public transit, and highway projects. You can also apply for the Airport Concession Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (ACDBE) if your business provides appropriate products for the many airports of the state.
We recommend going through the Illinois United Certification Program, a one-stop shop for all certifications in the state. You may qualify for a variety of regional or city certificates that can help you get ahead in your field (whether specifically made for women or not).
What Are the Benefits of Becoming a Certified Woman-Owned Business in Illinois?
A woman-owned business in Illinois is one that has gone the extra mile for the benefit of everyone in the company. Each one is listed in a special directory that can help get your name out to organizations and companies that could use their goods or services. You may even find business coming to you rather than you having to fill out endless RFPs.
In addition, certified women-owned businesses have access to different programs, including training opportunities and networking events. The exact benefits are wrapped up in the size of your business, ambitions, and expertise. Some women would prefer the opportunity for federal contracts with the help of a brief notification from the SBA when they become available. Others would prefer a more holistic experience where they can get involved in a variety of causes and have access to additional businesswomen resources.
If you’re looking for funding opportunities in Illinois, you should know that there are no specific grants available within the state. However, there are national grants available that are given out within Illinois. You may also qualify for specific grants based on your industry, especially if you’re making universally helpful products or services within your economic sector. Additionally, you can explore a variety of small business grants for women.
Finally, you can also look for local grants based on your state or county. These grants may not be meant specifically for women, but women-owned companies may be granted special consideration depending on criteria and intention.
Illinois has unfortunately struggled with the number of women-owned businesses, lagging behind the country in terms of overall growth. It just means that agencies and corporations will be all the more eager to work with women in business who are going the extra mile for the sake of their company. These certifications can give the existing companies a way to move ahead and new players an early stake in the game.