What Is a Certified Woman-Owned Business?
The origin of women-owned business certification programs can be traced back to 20 years ago when researchers revealed the severe lack of corporate and government agencies contracting with women-owned businesses. The U.S. government reacted with a goal to award “at least five percent of all federal contracting dollars to women-owned small businesses each year.”
This was achieved in 2015 when 17.7 billion of federal contracting dollars available to small businesses were awarded to Women-Owned Small Businesses (WOSBs). Since then, the government has continued to expand its goals and the resources made available for female entrepreneurs.
The main certification program for women-owned businesses seeking to increase their growth is WOSB, run by the Small Business Administration (SBA). There is also a subset of the WOSB program: the Economically Disadvantaged Women-Owned Small Business (EDWOSB) certification. Both are nationally recognized certifications that facilitate access to federal contracts “set aside” specifically for WOSBs in underrepresented industries, leveling out the playing field for women-owned businesses.
Alternatively, Maryland business-owners have the option of using one of the four SBA-approved third-party certifiers:
- National Women Business Owners Corporation (NWBOC): This organization aims to unite millions of women-owned businesses to advocate for the advancement for all.
- 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.
- 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.
What Are the Qualifications to Become a Certified Woman-Owned Business?
Qualifications vary depending on the certification for which you apply. So here are the general requirements for the women’s contracting program, according to the SBA website. Your Maryland business must adhere to the following guidelines to become a Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB):
- Qualify as a small business as per the SBA small business size standards, which generally use employee size and/or revenue as measures.
- Be at least 51% owned and controlled by women who are U.S. citizens.
- Be managed by women on a day-to-day basis. Women must also be the ones making long-term decisions for the company.
- The highest officer position in the company must be held by a woman on a full-time basis, during normal work hours.
Your Maryland business must adhere to the following guidelines to even be considered for an Economically Disadvantaged Women-Owned Small Business certification (EDWOSB):
- Have a personal net worth of less than $750,000. (There are some exclusions.)
- Have an adjusted gross income average over three years of $350,000 or less. (There are some exclusions.)
- Have a fair market value of all assets of $6 million or less. (There are no exclusions.)
The full rundown of qualifications is available online in the Code of Federal Regulations. There is also the option to get a preliminary assessment by the SBA’s Certify website to see if you’ll qualify.
How Do You Become a Certified Woman-Owned Business in Maryland?
There are two key ways for Maryland-based businesses to get national certification. The first is self-certification which requires you to answer questions and upload documents online. (The amount depends on whether you’ve previously participated in SBA programs.) While planning for this, reference the SBA’s preparation checklist which tells you everything you’ll need throughout the process.
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.
The online program will be free to use, though the application fees will still be charged. You can expect to wait between 15 and 90 days for approval for your application.
Alternatively, you can apply to be certified by one of the four approved third-party certifying agencies. You will then need to provide proof of your certification through certify.SBA.gov, closely following the listed instructions. Each third-party agency has its own benefits and unique application process.
Besides the previously covered methods to certify, there are other options. Maryland also has a number of state-wide, local, and regional certification programs. Making use of these local businesswomen resources can supplement other actions, like reading the list of required documents and qualifications, to help women prepare for and increase their chances of gaining certification.
Maryland Unified Certification Program (UCP)
The best way to gain state-wide certification in Maryland is to apply through the Unified Certification Program (UCP). Certification granted through this program — either Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) or Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) certification — is recognized by agencies across the states, and prevents business-owners from having to apply to agencies individually.
Also, if your company already has UCP certification from another state, you can expedite moving and apply to have it recognized in Maryland.
Maryland’s Department of Transportation (MDOT)
Maryland’s Department of Transportation (MDOT), through the Office of Minority Business Enterprise, is the state’s official certification agency and its largest provider of DBE projects. Applicants that qualify for certification will “receive recognition from each state agency that receives federal funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation,” while increasing exposure to MDOT’s own contracting opportunities.
Maryland Woman’s Business Center (MWBC)
With three locations across the state and copious online offerings, the Maryland Woman’s Business Center is another must-know resource for local entrepreneurs. According to its website, “Through workshops, individual counseling, facilitated peer group support, special resources, and access to capital, MWBC annually helps more than 1,500 women gain the skills, connections and confidence necessary to navigate entrepreneurship.”
The business center isn’t just helpful on the subject of certification. There are a number of programs, like the WeGrow Maryland Leadership & Business Growth Program, the International Trade Program and the Procurement Program, that female business-owners can use to escalate their companies. Additionally, there are endless guides on everything from starting a business to writing a business plan.
Capital Region Minority Supplier Development Council (CMSDC)
This resource is specifically for minority business owners in the state of Maryland — and the greater Washington D.C. region. The CMSDC helps entrepreneurs gain Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) certification if they are both a U.S. citizen and a member of either the Asian, Black, Hispanic, or Native American minority groups.
In addition to certification resources, the CMSDC offers programs and services like an Executive Education Program and a corporate membership which facilitates access to small business networks and development support.
There are also a number of regional certification programs offered through Maryland’s cities. For example, the City of Baltimore’s Office of Minority and Women-Owned Business Development supports local, women-owned companies seeking to do business with the city through WBE and MBE certifications, which put qualifying businesses on the city’s M/WBE database facilitating access to assistance and local services/programs. Find more information about regional certification opportunities here.
For the four national SBA-approved certifiers, it can take anywhere from 15 to 90 days from when the full documentation is received to process the certification. Maryland’s Unified Certification Program requires no fee, but takes several months from start to finish.
Due to the somewhat unpredictable waiting times for certification, it is recommended that businesses plan far in advance. Obviously preparation varies depending on which certification you intend to apply for, but generally the advice stands: gather required documents ahead of time, review legal and financial documents, and read the certifying agency’s standards, procedures, and requirements.
If your business is denied certification, it will be because you did not meet the eligibility requirements, failed to prove you control the company and run it independently, or did not provide the requested documents. If you prepare properly ahead of time you should not encounter any of these issues.
What Are the Benefits of Becoming a Certified Woman-Owned Business in Maryland?
There are many benefits of becoming a Certified Women-Owned Business in Maryland, starting with the fact that you’ll have increased contracting opportunities with major corporations and the government.
As a certified WBE, you’ll also get access to unique resources like regional and national events, webinars training, and business expos, as well as inclusion on a database which includes thousands of certified women business enterprises.
Qualified WBEs can be eligible for the Women Owned Small Business (WOSB), a national certification recognized by the federal government.
Though the government predominantly does not have grants available for certified for-profit businesses, companies that create a product benefiting their whole industry can qualify for unique grants. Contact your state branch of the Small Business Development Center for more information on this subject.