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An Interview with the Chairperson of the Board and the Founding President

December 1995

Duane Day, a principal of Day and Associates, a resource development and public relations firm, interviewed Phyllis Hill Slater and Kathleen T. Schwallie. The interview was conducted in Los Angeles , California in December 1995.

Ms. Slater is Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the National Women Business Owners Corporation. The President of Hill Slater, Inc., an engineering and architectural support systems firm, Ms. Slater also serves as chairperson of Black Women Enterprises, and as a director of the National Association of Women Business Owners, NWBOC's sister organization. She is the recipient of many honors, including the Small Business Administration's Small Business Advocate of the Year award. Ms. Slater was also a congressional appointee to the 1995 White House Conference on Small Business.

Ms. Schwallie is the founding President of the National Women Business Owners Corporation. An attorney and entrepreneur, she formerly directed the American Bar Association Model Procurement Code Project. The Code was a significant reform of state and local public contracting. Ms. Schwallie has been counsel to, and an advocate for, women business owners and small businesses on procurement issues throughout her career. She currently serves on the Air Force Women-Owned Business Council.

At the time of this interview, NWBOC was officially known as the Women Business Owners Corporation (WBOC).

Day: Both of you are officers of the Women Business Owners Corporation. What is WBOC?

Hill Slater: WBOC is a national non-profit organization created to assist women owners of businesses to compete more successfully for the billions of dollars of goods and services contracts let each year by government agencies and large corporations. We want to increase the number of women vendors who can meet the requirements of these markets. WBOC also provides technical assistance to purchasers to assist them in identifying and contracting with women-owned businesses which can service their needs. Finally, we want to ensure that taxpayers receive more value for their tax dollars through greater competition for government contracts.

Day: Why should women-owned businesses be singled-out? Can't they bid on contracts just like other businesses?

Schwallie: Women-owned businesses represent the fastest growing segment of the American economy. There are over seven million women-owned businesses in the United States today. Together, these businesses employ 35% more people than are employed worldwide by all the Fortune 500 companies. The National Foundation for Women Business Owners, a sister organization of WBOC, which compiled these statistics, has also found that women-owned businesses in the U.S. are generating $1,400,000,000 in sales annually - up from an estimated $278,000,000 in 1987.

Despite these impressive statistics, women-owned businesses received only 1.4% of all government procurement awards over $25,000 in 1994, and 1.8% of all awards under $25,000 in 1993. Unfortunately, the problem is as great in the corporate arena; the only study known to be available, prepared by the National Association of Purchasing Management, pegs corporate purchases from women-owned businesses at 2.7%.

Hill Slater: There is also another dimension to this; women-owned businesses face many problems- some of them unique to them- when it comes to bidding for these contracts.

  • too many government and corporate purchasers have failed to include women-owned businesses on their supplier lists and have no effective outreach programs.
  • an astounding 27% of federal contracts representing $52 billion in contracts were "sole-sourced" to large businesses in 1993. Women are for all intents and purposes precluded from competing for these contracts.
  • some businesses owned by women are not yet "savvy" in the procurement arena -- they don't know what opportunities are available, or if they do, they don't know about them soon enough to plan well; in some cases, they also are not prepared to successfully bid for contracts and perform them.

Day: Maybe that's the point. Maybe the statistics you cite reflect the fact that women business owners aren't prepared to compete for these procurement awards.

Schwallie: In some cases, that is true. And that is one of the reasons WBOC was established. It will help women business owners acquire the knowledge and develop the skills to enable them to win their fair share of procurement awards.

But businesses owned by women are not unprepared in the sense that they can't deliver quality goods and services; they can and they do. Some of them just have not had the resources they need to learn about these procurement systems to effectively compete in them. It is also an unfortunate reality that some women business owners continue to face discrimination when they attempt to compete. This is particularly true for women of color and other racial and ethnic minorities who face the double burden of race and gender discrimination. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, some people responsible for issuing contract awards harbor the illusion that these firms are not as good as businesses owned by men. Some believe that women should not be in business in the first place. These attitudes are clearly reflected in the tiny percentages of procurement awards to women-owned businesses by major corporations and governments.

Day: Why should a corporation or government agency be interested in having women-owned businesses among their suppliers?

Hill Slater: Purchasers, whether corporate or government, are advantaged by having vendors available who are able to deliver quality goods and/or services, in a timely fashion, and at a competitive price. Women-owned businesses can do just that.

It is typical for firms and government agencies to rely on sources of goods and services they have used in the past. A purchasing officer will not look for new suppliers when he does not believe it is in his or his employer's interest to do so. This attitude sometimes stems from an unwillingness by some government purchasing officers to take new risks, which they automatically attribute to women-owned businesses. Some corporate purchasers are actively trimming their supplier lists and developing more long term contracts with fewer vendors to achieve cost-efficiencies. But consider this. If you have never given 40% of the businesses in this country the opportunity to compete for your contracts, you will never realize the competitive advantage these businesses could achieve for you. You might find that this competi-tive advantage offsets the efficiencies being sought.

Schwallie: Another reason that women-owned businesses should be of interest to these purchasers is that the federal government has set a goal that 5% of all its contracts, and 5% of the subcontracts let by its prime contractors, be awarded to businesses owned by women. That goal, modest as it is, will not be reached unless significant new actions are undertaken to ensure women-owned businesses are given an equal opportunity to compete. By working with women business owners and purchasing entities, WBOC can be a significant catalyst to ensure these goals are reached and surpassed.

Day: Is the Women Business Owners Corporation, at root, an affirmative action program? If I read the trends correctly, affirmative action may soon be a thing of the past, or undergo major changes at least.

Hill Slater: WBOC's focus is to open up the government and major corporate procurement markets to allow women-owned businesses to compete. WBOC is committed to ensuring the free market exists in reality for all women business owners. We are saying to corporate America and the government, "solicit bids and proposals from women-owned businesses; they can deliver what you want, when you want it, and at a price you want to pay." Affirmative action programs will change and WBOC will be instrumental in effecting some of these changes. WBOC is assisting the federal government in revamping its programs to ensure that only businesses certified as owned and controlled by women can benefit from outreach programs intended for women business owners. This type of effort will help restore the public's faith in these programs. The bottom line is this - when women business owners can truly compete for government contracts, there will be no need for affirmative action programs.

Day: Okay, so how are you going to do it? How will you train women business owners to be successful in the procurement arenas? How will you provide them with the resources they and purchasers need to open up the competitive process?

Schwallie: The best way to answer your questions is to spell out what we are doing. In short, WBOC:

  • has developed a Procurement Institute to provide technical assistance and training to women business owners and purchasing entities;
  • will shortly establish a Network for the dissemination of information on the Internet World Wide Web; and
  • will soon initiate its National Certification Program.

The elements of NWBOC's program are inter-related. The Procurement Institute is designed to provide detailed information about the "how" of procurement. The purchasing policies and practices employed by corporations and governments are being identified through the NWBOC Corporate Advisory Board and the Liaison Committee to Purchasing Officials. These will be the basis for a variety of training, publications, and informational services NWBOC provides.

The NWBOC Network will be one of the delivery vehicles for this information and training. Women business owners around the nation will be able to access up-to-date, accurate data, previously unavailable to many of them. The Network will also enable purchasers to more easily locate women vendors throughout the country.

Once they locate vendors which can meet their needs, purchasers will want verification that these businesses are owned and controlled by women. This verification can be provided by WBOC through its National Certification Program. Not only will this service ease the burden of women suppliers in accessing outreach programs throughout the country, it will also enable corporations to focus more on their outreach efforts.

There are literally dozens of components which flow from the three-pronged WBOC program. A few of them include:

  • The International Women Business Owners Database;
  • A series of quality initiatives, including ISO 9000 auditing and registration, and NWBOC's National Medals of Excellence