So, you're a woman and you run a business. In the pool of privately-held small businesses in this country, being a women business owner actually has many advantages. Most public corporations as well as local, state, and federal government purchasing agencies have programs for allotting a certain percentage of business to women-owned companies. Getting certified as a Women Business Enterprise (WBE) can make the difference between landing that business or not. However, the certification process is not without its challenges, and often times owners get discouraged during the process because they lack the proper guidance or misunderstand how the process works. The following is what you need to know should you decide that certification is to your benefit.

How to Become a Certified Women-Owned Business: Make Sure You Meet the Criteria

Before embarking on the certification process, it is important for business owners to understand that it is a major time investment. The requirements for submitting an application are very stringent and must be met completely. "A lot of people want to scream when they are going through it, but they always end up happy that they got certified," says Janet Harris-Lange, president of The National Women Business Owners Corporation (NWBOC), which was the first private national certifier of women business enterprises when it formed in 1995.

The most essential requirement for achieving certification as a women-owned enterprise is majority control. That means a woman must own 51 percent of the business to qualify for certification. However, ownership is just a small part of the equation. The term ownership goes beyond numbers in this case. A woman must also hold the highest position at the company and be active in daily management and the strategic direction of the company. "Ownership is a very easy thing to do on paper, but if the woman is not the visionary and holds the office manager position, for example, that's the kind of thing that will halt a certification," says Harris-Lange. So before moving forward, make sure that you have several ways of proving that you are leading the company, from doing the hiring and firing to any planning documents.

In addition to being a majority owner, a woman must also be a U.S. citizen, and it is recommended that she be in business for at least six months. If you meet these three main requirements as a business owner, you can begin the process of putting together your application.

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How to Become a Certified Women-Owned Business: Get Organized

There is a long list of documents that you will need to get together for your application. This is probably the most arduous part of the certification process, and if you're not organized or haven't kept track of important business documents, getting everything together can be even more time consuming and challenging. "A lot of people joke that we ask for everything but their first born," says Harris-Lange.

You don't have to be going through the application process before you get organized. If you think that getting certified is something that you will eventually want to do, it is wise to start putting aside the necessary documents and paperwork as early as possible. "The best time to start organizing your materials is as you do things for the first time," says Harris-Lange. When you are a young business, you are more likely to have documents such as your incorporation papers and copies of any leases easily accessible.

Nancy Mobley, CEO of Insight Performance, a Dedham, Massachusetts-based human resources consulting firm and certified woman-owned business, says it's a good idea to start the certification process early. Mobley went through the certification process after five years in business and she remembers that it took a while, not only to locate all the necessary documents, but also just to make copies of everything. "I pretty much had to copy my controller's filing cabinet," says Mobley.

The Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), a Washington, D.C.-based national non-profit that also provides an avenue for women-owned enterprises to get certified, has a list of required documentation on their Website. Often women don't know anything about the certification process until they have decided to apply, and it can feel very overwhelming looking at the list for the first time. Just being familiar with what's required can make the process a lot less stressful.

You may also want to enlist someone to help you out as you begin to get organized. "Most women are too busy leading their company and don't have time to do a lot of the administrative work associated with the application process," says Harris-Lange. In that case, working with a trusted employee or even a business partner or other company executive may be the best way for you to tackle the process. However, if you are a small company and don't have available personnel to spare, there are other resources to assist you through the process.

The National Women Business Owner's Council put together a certification kit, meant to serve as a guided tour of all aspects of the application process and provide a built-in organizational method for the application materials, that it sells on its Website for $39.95. Harris-Lange found that the organization was getting numerous calls from women who were unclear about what was being asked for. The NWBOC is always available to field those questions, however, Harris-Lange says those who have purchased the kit end up getting most of their questions answered from the information provided.

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How to Become a Certified Women-Owned Business: Where to Get Certified

In addition to private third-party certifiers like the WBENC and NWBOC -- both of which provide national certification -- several state and local agencies offer programs for certification. Deciding what level of certification you should get really depends on what kind of business and customers you are targeting, says Harris-Lange. For example, you may be looking to do business with the local hospital in your city, so the scope of your services would not require that you have a national certification. In that case, it would be best to go through your local city agency to apply for certification. For companies that are interested in doing contract work for a government agency, it is important to contact individual agencies to obtain their certification requirements. While the rules vary state to state, many state agencies require that women-owned businesses obtain certification through their program because they maintain their own regulations.

However, some companies find that they only need to obtain a national certification. National certification is most beneficial for businesses that are looking to do work in the private sector, and are not planning to land government contracts. Harris-Lange says one type of certification is not more advantageous in terms of getting business than another, and in many cases the business owner will opt to get certified on multiple levels if they don't want to limit themselves on the type of work they can bid on. "Look at what your vision is for your company," says Harris-Lange, "and then make the determination based on who your customer base is and the scope of your services."

Amanda Steinberg, founder of Soapbxx, a Philadelphia-based web consultancy, is in the process of becoming a certified women-owned enterprise through the city of Philadelphia. Steinberg determined that applying on the city level was best suited for her company. She started the application process after hearing about an RFP put out by the Mayor's Office of Sustainability in Philadelphia that she wanted to compete for. "Anyone can apply to do work for the city of Philadelphia, but there are quotas for how much work the city has to give to minority and women-owned businesses," says Steinberg. "I realized that if we could present ourselves as a certified women-owned business, we would be well-positioned to win these type of projects in the future." Once Steinberg receives her certification, she plans to work more extensively on social sector projects on the local level, and she believes the certification will be a strategically smart move when it comes to those pursuits.

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How to Become a Certified Women-Owned Business: The Application Process

Once you have gathered all the necessary information and paperwork, you'll need to submit it all to the appropriate agency for review. Harris-Lange says that as long as all the required elements are there, it doesn't really matter how it's submitted, but it will help expedite the process if you've created some organizational method for assembling the information. A binder with dividers is a good way to keep everything organized, she says. It's important to follow the instructions of the agency or organization through which you are applying. Also, make sure that you keep copies of everything you've submitted. In most cases, you will be able to submit a photocopy of a document and keep the original for your own files.

Once you've turned in your application, it will go to a review committee. At NWBOC, the review committee is comprised of at least one attorney and one CPA, along with other business professionals. Harris-Lange says matters of confidentiality are taken very seriously. At NWBOC, a potential applicant will be contacted if there is something missing or incomplete in their application. Expect the review process to take on average four to six weeks. If everything in the application is complete the first time around, the process could be as quick as three weeks.

In addition to the paper part of the application, be prepared for an in-person interview, when a committee from the certification agency or organization will conduct a site visit at your place of business. The purpose of the site visit is for the committee to observe how the business is run, and verify that there is in fact a woman at the helm. "We have a rigid review system, and we don't want to scare women, but we have to feel comfortable that we can approve them as a women-owned business enterprise so we come and see for ourselves," says Harris-Lange.

You don't have to prepare anything for this site visit; the committee wants to see business as usual. For Mobley, the interview part was a little daunting, but after going through it, her advice is to have confidence in yourself. "We had nothing to hide because Insight is 100 percent women-owned," say Mobley. "The interview process is necessary because they really do vet out those companies that don't meet the ownership criteria. At that point, you don't want to try to pull the wool over anyone's eyes, because you're not going to make it."

After the site visit team has met with all the owners, the report from the visit gets added to the application materials. At NWBOC, the review committee meets one final time to make their determination, and if the business gets awarded certification, they will receive a certificate that states their new status as a women-owned business enterprise.

If for some reason there is a discrepancy with your application and you are denied certification, the NWBOC allows you 30 days after the time of notification to appeal the decision. The NWBOC will always provide the reasons for denial. You then have to wait one year before you can apply again. However, Harris-Lange says there has only been one time in the history of NWBOC that a business owner went through the entire process and was denied.

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How to Become a Certified Women-Owned Business: Once You're Certified

Congratulations! You made it through the certification process. Now it's time to use the distinction to your advantage. According to business owners who have their certification, there is a lot of potential to grow your business through this avenue, but you can't just sit back and expect the business to come to you. Mobley says the best way to get word out that you are certified is to contact local, state, and national certification agencies and ask to get put on their mailing list. Often, big companies and government agencies will send out RFPs through organizations like the NWBOC and the WBENC and your company will receive an e-mail blast about any upcoming project opportunities. When you get certified through NWBOC, you automatically become part of the organization's database, in which a wide range of buyers have access. Additionally, Mobley says Insight makes mention that they are a certified women-owned enterprise on their marketing and promotional materials, which is an easy way to let potential customers know about your distinction.

Lastly, once you are certified you have to maintain the certification by applying for renewal every year. If you don't renew your certification every year, it will expire after that first year. Thankfully, the renewal process is much simpler and streamlined compared to the initial application. The process can be done online for the NWBOC. Check with your certification agency for their renewal procedures. No additional information is required for re-certification, unless the structure, ownership, or name of your business has changed during that year. The application and affidavit must then be filed with the most recent tax return for the business. Make sure that you allow ample time before your expiration date to send in the recertification materials. Harris-Lange's most crucial piece of advice to business owners is not to get lazy about the renewal process, because if your certification expires you have to start the application process all over again. "If you have your certification, value it enough to keep it up to date," she says.

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How to Become a Certified Women-Owned Business: Resources

National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO)
NAWBO is a national membership-based organization representing the interests of the more than 10 million women-owned businesses in the United States.

Small Business Association's Office of Government Contracting
The SBA's Office of Government Contracting works to encourage maximum participation by small, disadvantaged, and woman-owned businesses in federal government contract awards.

National Women Business Owners Corporation Database
The NWBOC has an online procurement marketplace where buyers can search the pool of certified WBEs, and where WBEs can make connections and secure procurement leads.
A list of key resources and links to websites of organizations whose interests are aligned with the needs of women-owned businesses.