SBA aiming above lowest common denominator

How is federal contracting like a coffee shop?

Ask Helen Russell, co-founder and CEO of Equator Coffees & Teas, and she’ll tell you success in both lines of work comes down to knowledge.

“You really have to know your information,” said Russell, whom the Small Business Administration announced on May 2 as the Small Business Person of the Year, along with her business partner Brooke McDonnell. “We try to stay ahead in terms of what we’re doing for the farmer, what we’re doing for employees, obviously what we’re doing for our customers. If we get our customers’ needs met, the needs of the company will automatically be met. We’re constantly thinking about how to do that.”

Maria Contreras-Sweet  (AP/Evan Vucci)
Maria Contreras-Sweet (AP/Evan Vucci)

SBA is also thinking about its customers, said SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet, which has helped the agency provide new benefits to small businesses and set federal contracting performance records.

“The SBA in the last couple of years has really been strutting,” said Contreras-Sweet, during the National Small Business awards ceremony in Washington. “We are at historic levels of putting access to capital out the doors, record levels of contracting, record levels of investment, and renewed and refined and more efficient programs around our disaster recovery.”

Dream big, start small

The awards ceremony is part of National Small Business Week. This year’s theme is “Dream Big, Start Small,” and runs May 1-7.

“Only in this country can you start in a garage and fast forward have over 350 wholesale customers, have 90 employees, have four retail stores, own a farm in Panama, win the Good Food Awards,” Russell said. “We are the first LGBT-certified business in the United States to be recognized as the small business of the year. We’re really, really proud of that. For all the other LGBT companies, we know there are more that came before us, but we are the ones who are acknowledged and we carry that with us. We’re very, very proud of that.”

Russell said SBA has been supportive of her company.  Equator opened a retail store with the help of an SBA 504 loan, which provides money for large purchases like real estate or equipment.

“This is something that works really, really well,” Russell said. “Only in this country can we have access to this type of capital and opportunity.”

Contreras-Sweet credits what she calls “looking for the modernization era of SBA” as the reason for why there is now a more friendly environment for small business.

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Earlier this year, SBA launched its SBA One program. SBA One allows actions like e-verify or e-signature rather than requiring a hard copy and a fax.

“It allows [financial institutions] to understand more quickly whether their customer is going to qualify for an SBA loan, and it allows us to regulate them more effectively because we can see in real time what they’re doing,” Contreras-Sweet said. “That system was a massive undertaking at the SBA, so it took some time but it’s finally up and it’s running now.”

SBA is also addressing what Contreras-Sweet calls the “slow maybe.”

Businesses were going to a bank for a loan, filling out an application, but waiting too long for an answer, Contreras-Sweet said. The SBA LINC program provides an online application process that then routes the application to a financial institution that best matches the applicant’s credit profile.

“So you’re not waiting for a slow maybe, and it could be that you get two or three financial institutions that respond, in which case it allows you now to be in the driver’s seat,” Contreras-Sweet said.

SBA is also working to take some load off of the federal government and focus support for small business at the local government level.

The Startup in a Day initiative challenges mayors in cities across the country to help businesses startup in 24 hours. More than 100 mayors have accepted the challenge.

“We’re not in a day yet, but we’re shaving days off dramatically,” Contreras-Sweet said.

Russell said she thinks the program is going to have “a huge impact.”

“There is so much red tape when you go to start a business, open a business, when you’re going to build something and get a permit,” Russell said. “To be able to be fast-tracked as an entrepreneur, and as a business, I think that’s something the SBA is working really really hard on. It’s really important because if you don’t have a large company behind you and you’re delayed, it’s only going to cost you more money.”

Staying accountable

Those programs and initiatives, coupled with an emphasis on minority-owned businesses have culminated in record-breaking years, Contreras-Sweet said.

SBA released its annual report card on the small business federal contracting ahead of the recognition week. Fiscal 2015 was a record-setting year, according to the report, with the government for the first time reaching its 5 percent women-owned small business [WOSB] contracting goal since the bar was set in 1996.

The government spent $17.8 billion working with WOSBS, according to the report. The government also reached — in and in fact surpassed — its 23 percent overall small business procurement goal by spending 25.75 percent, or $90.7 billion on small business contracts.

As a whole, the government received an A on its report card for fiscal 2015.

“This is a reflection of one, the administration sort of insisting that small business procurement is important and holding all of our sister agencies accountable,” said John Shoraka, SBA’s associate administrator for the Office of Government Contracting and Business Development. “But then it’s really an indication of our sister agencies working very hard in keeping their leaders and their managers accountable to small business performance.”

Contreras-Sweet said until recently, SBA looked at the numerator, rather than the denominator when it came to getting more out of procurement.

“How do we grow the pie; and I know that sounds unusual, but what we’re focused on doing now is to say what are we counting in that 23 percent congressionally-mandated goal, and what had not been counted was the federal procurement of some of our international operations,” she said. “And so we have changed the paradigm. I’m very excited to say that now the pie has also grown, so we think that it will challenge us to make sure that we still keep at the percentage of the numerator, with the larger denominator.”