"There is an alphabet soup of categories and certifications," says Mauricio Gaitan, the center director and a longtime government contractor himself. "Most businesses are very anxious about starting the process."
The SBDC is especially well-versed in the 8(a) Business Development Program. Administered by the Small Business Administration, the initiative aims to bolster minority-owned businesses by making them eligible to bid for federal contracts.
But getting certified isn't easy. Private consultants often charge thousands of dollars to get it done. And business owners who go it alone are often snared in paperwork and months of back-and-forth with the SBA.
That's where the SBDC comes in, says Gaitan. His counselors have become experts in the certification process by liaising with SBA officials, who work just a few miles away at the agency's Washington headquarters. Gaitan's staff are often able to anticipate the SBA's questions about a business owner's application, creating a faster path to certification.
"I don't know if I would be 8(a)-certified right now if it wasn't for their help," says Amoy McGhee of the architecture firm R. McGhee & Associates, which is currently bidding on a contract to restore the aging buildings that make up the Smithsonian research complex.
"I had a trained set of eyes that poured over the paperwork," McGhee says, adding that her SBDC counselor caught several flaws, including the principal architect's teaching job at Howard University. "They said the SBA will frown on somebody doing a job outside of this business," she says. "So, they coached me on how to answer the SBA's questions, and probably shaved so much time off the whole process. It was really fantastic service."
McGhee's firm gained certification in late 2009—less than six months after the entrepreneur began the application process. (The average company, lacking a counselor's help, can spend a year or more waiting for certification, Gaitan says.)
Affiliated with Howard University, the SBDC is located in the commercial heart of Washington, near Foggy Bottom and the central business district. It has just three full-time staffers and operates on a tight budget, though Gaitan says he boosts resources by partnering with the Latino Economic Development Corporation and other local agencies. "In many ways, our small size makes us nimble enough to form meaningful relationships with clients," he adds.
The center also has strong ties to Washington, D.C.'s immigrant community, working with many foreign-born entrepreneurs such as Nicolas Canales, founder of the language-tutoring firm Spanish Blackbelt. The 37-year-old Peruvian immigrant meets with Gaitan every month to crunch numbers and brainstorm ways to fatten the company's bottom line.
"He's managed to really understand me and the way I think about my business," Canales says of Gaitan. "If I could give him the highest grade possible, I would."