This year, I set some pretty lofty business goals for my solo social media business. One of them: Diversify my clientele by adding corporate clients.
For me, the challenge of creating community and engagement around big, faceless corporate giants is one of the most fulfilling parts of running a social media management company. But approaching them? Not so easy. When reaching out to potential corporate clients, I know I need to bring my best game.
What becoming a certified woman-owned business is all about
Becoming a certified Woman-Owned Business not only creates credibility, but also creates opportunities for female business owners that they may not otherwise have access to. For me, it was a huge step toward the confidence I need to approach my dream corporate clients.
Certification can be obtained through a variety of organizations, including the U.S. Small Business Administration, and a host of state and local government agencies. I chose to pursue certification through the national Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC). While the City of Chicago offers a Woman Business Enterprise (WBE) Certification as well, a more national scale was a better fit for me because of the clients I’m targeting. For your business, a local certification may be the tool you need to set yourself apart in your specific region.
Ideal participants in certification should:
- Be part of a business that is at least 51% owned, managed and controlled by a woman or women
- Have a target market that includes corporate America
- Be U.S. citizens
The WBDC promotes Woman Business Enterprise Certification as a tool to help women-owned businesses “get in the door” of large corporations. While not a guarantee of business, the WBE Certification is recognized by over a thousand major corporations and government agencies in the U.S. This is ideal for my business where, although I appreciate the benefits of working with local clients (like randomly popping into their offices with coffee and donuts for staff), I also have the flexibility of working remotely with clients.
Approaching corporate giants with a certification shows that you’re invested and serious -- a perception that solopreneurs may struggle against.
Who certification isn’t for
Not all One Woman Shops will benefit from certification. Namely, business owners who prefer to work strictly with solopreneurs or small business clientele most likely won’t be able to realize the full benefits of obtaining certification.
The process + timeline of getting certified
I gave myself three weeks to make this happen. There’s not a ton of information readily available about certifications and so I had to conduct a fair amount of research on my own. Over the span of those three weeks, it took about five hours of research to grasp the different types of certifications, which organizations offered them, and what the benefits of each were. The WBDC doesn’t offer application assistance services, but they do have a help line for application questions. I also reached out to various entrepreneurs for feedback and advice.
The WBE application is two-fold. In addition to gathering required documents, you must also register for and complete an online application. The online application is only good for 90 days, so make sure you have your documents before registering online!
Getting organized was my most time consuming feat. I didn’t feel comfortable just throwing documents into an envelope and sending them off. I wanted to present my application in a way that reflected my business as professional and thorough. It took about a week and a half for me to gather the required documents. I had to request copies of prior year tax forms through the IRS, hire an accountant to write an opening balance sheet and get my Sworn Affidavit notarized.
The WBE Certification contains six categories of required documentation:
- General Information
- Owner Eligibility
- Financial Structure
- Management Information
- Governance Information
I made title pages for each category, and behind each title page were the corresponding documents. I then nestled my entire application into a sliding bar report cover. The way I organized my application information is not a requirement, but I thought it would be convenient for the personnel reviewing my application.
Once submitted, it can take up to 90 days for your application to process. Keep this in mind if you’re seeking certification within a certain timeframe. Be sure to go through the documentation requirements with a fine-tooth comb. If you’re missing something, you run the risk of pushing your application to the end of the line, prolonging the certification process.
Tips to make the process smoother
When I first began researching WBE Certifications, I scared myself to death. I was overwhelmed with the six-page list of documentation I needed and ended up putting the project off for another week. When I finally worked up the nerve to tackle it again, I started small. I had no idea what an opening balance sheet was, but I knew I could print off my resume, make a copy of my state-issued driver's license, birth certificate, and DBA license, and in about 15 minutes I checked off four required items needed to complete my application. Start with what you know.
Here are a few other tips for making the process run smoother:
- Most organizations that offer certification will likely provide you with a list of required documents and/or another form of checklist. Print them off. I went through the doc requirements with a colored Sharpie to make note of what I had and what I needed. I then created a separate checklist of what I needed and a labeled file folder to keep all of my required documents in.
- You may need to solicit the service of an accountant or lawyer to help you with some documentation. Make a note of that as soon as you go through the requirements, and reach out to them in advance. It may take them time to fulfill the service you need for your application.
- Other documents you may be asked to provide are your business history and resume. In some cases, your biography does not suffice as business history, so you may have to write one from scratch. Keep in mind that a resume should cover related professional experience — so leave out the dog walking hustle you had during summer breaks, unless of course it relates to your business.
- Find an accountability partner. The depth of documentation required is highly dependent on how complex your business is -- based on factors like employees, partnerships, incorporation, and more. It can be overwhelming, to say the least. I knew committing to document my experience to share with other women in business via One Woman Shop (what you’re reading now) would keep me accountable and committed to my deadline.
- Most organizations that offer WBE Certifications do not offer application assistance. For business owners in the Chicagoland area, The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce offers application help through their Procurement Technical Assistance Center. Reach out to business assistance centers in your area for help (think Small Business Association). If they don’t offer the service, they’re likely to direct you to one that does.
Is it worth it?
A tedious application process and walking away $350 poorer must come with real benefits, right? Indeed, it does. Aside from the confidence it gives and the proof to your potential clients that you are a legitimate organization, certified Woman-Owned Businesses have exclusive access to a database of corporate partners, and those partners have access to your business information.
When I turned to a business group for advice on becoming a Women Business Enterprise, Jameeda McCoy, CEO of Belle Up Maternity weighed in on the benefits of certification: “The purpose of certification is that certain contracts (especially government ones) require a specified level of WBE participation, so large companies looking to bid on projects will often partner with smaller companies that are WBE-certified to do a particular job on the project.”
Christy Echols, President and CEO of Paragon Development Group, also added: "Reach out to organizations with a supplier diversity program (business programs that encourage the use of historically underutilized businesses as supply vendors) and target those companies with your WBE. For service-based businesses, WBE's love doing business with other WBE's!"
At the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Director Alex Alcantar reviewed my application with me. Although Alex assured me that my application was solid, he did explain to me that certification is only a first step in securing contracts. “You’ll have to work hard, market yourself and chase opportunities even after certification. Opportunities won’t just fall in your lap because of it.”
How to get started today
If you think a Woman-Owned Business certification is right for your business, start with a Google Search for Woman-Owned Business Certification + your city and state. A quick search will bring up city and state certification programs, and their associated costs.
One Woman Shops: Have you thought about applying for Woman-Owned Business certification? What’s holding you back? Tell me in the comments below.