You’ve done it! You’ve filled out stacks of paperwork, scheduled site visits, answered endless questions, waited patiently and you’re officially a certified woman-owned business. This is no easy feat, but what now? A woman-owned business certification is a great support for your business, but only if you leverage it smartly.
At a recent Brazen St. Louis event, we had the opportunity to sit down with three experts in women and minority owned business certifications — Pam Kuehling, Commissioner of Supply for the City of St. Louis Government, Jacinta Witherspoon of the Women’s Business Development Center, and Dr. Stephanie Smith, Manager of Supplier Diversity at Washington University in St. Louis. They offered four strategies for using your (hard-earned) certification to unlock growth.
Learn the Contacts and Required Certifications in Your Area
At many large government offices and corporations, there is a dedicated contact for supply and even supplier diversity.
“I buy everything from pencils to fire trucks – and yes, condoms – and we buy from about 2,000 vendors. I love to shop and would love to buy from you,” said Keuhling, underscoring the breadth of supply many government buyers are responsible for procuring.
Getting to know the contacts in your area is a key first step in developing your business. These contacts serve as a point person for large organizations and because their needs can vary widely over time, supply contacts meet with vendors regularly and keep detailed records of certified businesses for future needs. And, importantly, they share this information freely.
“The certification is an opportunity. Even if it isn’t a fit for us right now, we’ll direct you to someone who we know – other departments, partners, outside contacts and more. This is a way to open doors,” said Smith.
As valuable as it may be to know the contacts, it’s just as important to understand the certification needs of each. Your certification may not apply for a municipality or state requirements, and many have individualized systems.
“The certification is long and drawn out, but once you do one, you’re all set to do all the others,” said Witherspoon. She recommends keeping a well-organized “corporate book” of your certification paperwork so that you can easily re-purpose to meet the needs of specific certifications.
Build the Relationship, but Don’t Lead with Your Certification
While many government and corporate organizations have M/WBE goals, having a certification does not necessarily make you a shoe-in to win the contract. As with any business relationship, it is still vital to know your target, their processes and put in the legwork to earn an opportunity.
Dr. Smith looks for vendors to meet with her in-person and tell her specifically what differentiates them from the competition. Keuhling echoed that she’ll give anyone a meeting, but she looks for vendors who do their homework and demonstrate they can deliver on her needs.
“You never want to lead with your WBE certification! Focus on your value first and your certifications second,” said Witherspoon. “Your certification is usually the icing on the cake.”
A certification can help you close the deal but is not a replacement for presenting a solid proposal.
Don’t be Deterred by Big Bids
As you build your relationships with corporate and government contacts, you may find that some open contracts are broader than the scope of your business or more than you can take on successfully. Don’t give up! In many cases you can bid on a part of a contract, rather than the whole thing.
Additionally, your M/WBE certification may offer you the opportunity to partner, as a sub-contractor, with competitors on a large bid. Yes, your competitors can help you unlock new business.
“The pie is big enough for all of us, you may just need to slice it differently. It’s okay to be the tier two vendor, if you’re getting business and working with a new company,” said Witherspoon.
In partnering with a competitor, you can strengthen your bid together, as your certification could make the proposal more appealing. This is an opportunity to get your foot in the door with a new organization.
“A percentage of something is better than none of it,” said Keuhling.
A Lost Bid is Not a Lost Opportunity
Losing is always tough, but remember that a lost bid is not a lost opportunity. Your certification is a chance to open doors.
“I knew a female architect who bid for small contract and it wasn’t a fit at the time, but we put her in touch with someone else on campus and today she’s working with teams on big projects around town,” said Smith.
Your contacts may not award a contract today, but they will remember you. The more supplier diversity professionals see you and the more you cultivate those relationships, the more opportunities you’ll find. Be patient and thoughtfully make connections.
“Certification isn’t easy, but once you have it, keep it. Even if I don’t have an immediate project, I’ll have an opportunity for you in the future,” concluded Smith.
While acquiring certifications and building relationships with supply contacts takes time, just remember, the hard work you put in today can be tomorrow’s growth for your business.
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