On the heels of its official launch in early March, we caught up with Digital WOSB Alliance President, Jessica Morris, also CEO of Pluribus Digital, and Vice President, Nadia Smith, CEO of Athena Federal Solutions, to better understand the formation of the new Alliance, its focus, and how the GovCon community can get involved.
As leaders within women-owned small businesses, strategizing about their own capture pursuits, there was a general understanding that awards to WOSBs were both infrequent, and largely outside of the IT realm. Speaking together, with others in industry, and with contracting officers across government, it became clear that the Rule of Two and the effort of taking that to market has been a deterrent.
The Biden Administration’s recent Executive Order, setting the bar for commitments to small business spending, especially in the area of set-asides for small businesses, does not specifically spell out WOSB. Not disputing that minority-owned firms or Veteran-owned firms should be given special consideration, the question remained as to why WOSBs were not.
“We spoke with one agency’s Director Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization who said plainly that the bar was too high and government could not always be sure that women are truly leading a women-owned small business.”
Fifty percent of the workforce or more are women. But yet the number of contracts that are set aside for women and small businesses is minimal. “From fiscal year 2018 through to the present, 37% of digital services contract awards were set aside for small businesses, but less than 1% were set aside for women owned small businesses.”
A Conversation that Snowballed
Starting with a small group focused on the what and how and who, the original vision was formed. Attending events and speaking with other WOSBs, the conversation evolved and within a short time the list was long and growing. “It became clear very early on that this was about doing more than just market research, more than about compiling a list of vetted women-owned small business. Issues, including around Spousal Signatures, made it clear we needed organization, an advocacy focus for women-owned small business, specifically in digital services.”
Adding in an advocacy function, with specific calls to action for government, the new alliance also created a network of digital services, a network that can connect, support each other and share with each other. “If I need a data engineer, I may have a subcontracting opportunity and now have a network I can look to and work with. When we rise, we all rise together.”
Many small business initiatives, such as 8(a) have been very successful, and have created opportunity for those who may not have had the chance to be successful in business. “We are not here to criticize anyone or any program. We do want to be intentional about businesses that are women-owned and women-led because that seems to be one of the challenges stopping procurement officers from carving things out as WOSB set-asides.”
Being intentional will require a wide variety of WOSBs, clarity in determining who will be accepted as a member, including criteria that requires a digital services NAICS code, and a referral from a current member that is familiar with day-to-day operations and leadership and can vouch for a new potential company.
With key Federal leadership, including SBA Administrator Isabel Guzman, Federal CIO Clare Martorana, GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan, US Vice President Kamala D. Harris, there is momentum behind and for women leaders, and especially those in tech. “We need to take that momentum and do what we can to help women who are small business owners really move the needle in government contracting.”
“The small business community in particular was not seeing enough women owners. We want to see diverse voices at the table, diverse leadership styles. When we think about digital services, we’re talking about mission driven services, including mothers, daughters and wives who will interact with those services.”
That momentum filters down into the multiple perspectives across companies, including coders, developers, and human-centered design experts who are thinking differently about why and how applications are built, driving better outcomes and better products.
Understanding that the Legislative Branch will be the organization to truly drive policy changes, the group will be striking up conversations, looking for support, and gauging the best path forward. “For the most part, people do have good feelings about making sure small businesses succeed. There’s a story here that is rooted in business and success and building good government products that we think will resonate.”
Having connections and history with the Digital Services Coalition, the Digital WOSB Alliance subscribes to all of the things the DSC is working to accomplish. Where the two diverge however is in the specific asks of the new alliance with respect to the WOSB set-aside and how this organization of women, focused on women-owned digital services firms will drive a specific procurement story.
Community support will also come in the form of Ally Members, those who support the organization and its cause, that may be large businesses, or owned and run by those certified as service-disabled Veteran owners, HUBzone owners, minorities and other underrepresented groups. “We’ve had a lot of great conversations with a variety of leaders in the GovCon space who have helped us understand their business paths, the challenges in procurement, and where those of WOSBs should advocate, collaborate, and educate. Having those conversations, understanding what got them there and the challenges they faced or didn’t will really help inform us as we move ahead.”
The End of the Rainbow
The ultimate goal here is to see procurements with preferences and set asides for WOSBs, and to change the statue to make it easier to justify a sole source award to WOSBs, as it is for other socioeconomic categories. “Short term we need to prove we have a membership base who are interested in the conversation, advocating for each other and finding others tackling the same barriers. We’ll need to organize and understand fully what those barriers are.”
Looking ahead to the next year the Alliance is hoping to have several events through which the community can come together to better understand, see new ideas, that will provide the fuel in starting to tackle the big question of why not. Why not a sole source authority for WOSB? “It would be great to have advocates in Congress but for now it’s about getting established, make sure we’re tackling the big questions, and then we can really dive into these tactical goals.”
- April 27: 3:30-5pm “Uplifting WOSBs in Digital + Government Services” Join the Digital WOSB Alliance and leaders from the business and government community to discuss the future of women-owned, women-led small businesses. There will be two interactive panel discussions followed by a networking happy hour. REGISTER NOW: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/uplifting-wosbs-in-digital-government-services-tickets-580669045747
About the Digital WOSB Alliance
The Digital WOSB Alliance is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the advancement and expansion of women-owned, women-led digital services organizations serving federal customers through community, advocacy and education. We are experienced human-centered designers, user researchers, software engineers, product managers, security professionals, content authors, and business professionals. Our members are small businesses, which are owned and led by women who are actively engaged in every aspect of the business. For more information, including membership, visit: www.digitalwosballiance.org.
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