What if the government could help you grow your business?  There are thousands of government contracts available to small business owners, only many entrepreneurs don't even know they exist. One program in particular helps socially and economically disadvantaged entrepreneurs gain access to the economic mainstream of American society. SBA has helped thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs over the years to gain a foothold in government contracting and is administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). The 8(a) certification allows the business owner to bid on contracts with Federal Agencies and participants can receive sole-source contracts, up to a ceiling of $3 million for goods and services and $5 million for manufacturing.  The overall program goal is to graduate firms that will go on to thrive in a competitive business environment.

Do you qualify? Here are the basics; you must:

• Show U.S. citizen ownership.
•  Show a net worth of less than $250,000, excluding the primary residence and excluding equity in your business.
• Show potential for success and good character.
• Show 51 percent ownership by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.

Wendy Pease is the CEO of Rapport International, a growing language interpretation and translation service.  Pease recently applied for the 8(a) certification because, she says, 'They do a lot of communication materials and have a need for translations, especially in public health and education.'    Wendy goes on to say, 'I couldn't find the right connections to get government business.  I simply don't know the right people.' Pease has hopes that the 8(a) will pave the way to introductions to the right people so that Rapport International can obtain some of the translation contracts.  

To gain greater clarity on the socially and economically disadvantaged guidelines, I turned to Rick Porterfield of Porterfield Consulting Solutions. Here's what he has to say.

To qualify as socially disadvantaged you either need to be a member of a designated group or demonstrate social disadvantage in a narrative format.  Designated groups include Black Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Subcontinent Asian Americans and Asian Pacific Americans; these groups are presumed to be socially disadvantaged.  In the case of a woman who is not a member of a designated group, they can show social disadvantage by providing a narrative describing specific examples of gender bias or discrimination, or even sexual harassment, they have experienced in education, employment, or business.  It is not uncommon for women to experience social disadvantage in employment in the form of fewer promotion opportunities, smaller raises, and fewer training opportunities than what men may receive; all of these make advancement more difficult.  In business, they are often not invited to bid, or when they do get the chance and submit a competitive proposal, inevitably a male owned firm receives the award (I have seen this happen even when their bid is the lowest!).  Also women are often the victims of sexual harassment in the workplace and in business; I have seen women leave good jobs over this.  Here again, this is a huge hindrance to advancement.  These are all things that can be detailed in the narrative to establish social disadvantage.  One incident won't do it though.  The social disadvantage has to be "chronic and substantial" -- it has to have happened over a significant period of time (typically years) and had a real effect on their advancement in career or business.

I also asked Rick about the types of services and products that might be appropriate for government contracts. In response Rick quips,' I can say as a former Government contracting officer that the government literally buys whatever you have to sell.' 

While not everyone is likely to qualify for the certification, taking these steps can lead to enormous business success.

Lelani Craig, CEO of CommGap International Language Services, says 'Applying for the 8(a) has been one of the best things I have ever done for my business.' Craig was accepted and certified within three months of submitting her application. However, she quickly realized that the program itself wasn't as easy as it seemed to be. That is when she discovered the SBA's Mentor-Protégé program. 'I think this was the greatest benefit for us in the 8(a) program,' says Lelani. 'Working with our mentor proved to be invaluable. They answered my questions, taught me how to set up certain workflow in my industry, and how to network and meet the decision makers.' 

To learn more about the 8(a) and whether you qualify for a piece of the $200 billion government market for private sector goods and services, check out the SBA website  or visit your SBA local district office.