Certifiable: The Process of Establishing That You’re a Real WOB

Contributed by Anna-Lea Dieringer, Virtual Marketing Officer

12/9/17 Update: It’s official. Principals Anna-Lea Dieringer and Erina Malarkey are thrilled to announce that VMO is now a certified women-owned business. As a country, we know we have a long way to go to reach equality, but we are thrilled that the number of WOBs is growing so quickly – and that our name has just been added to the list. FACT: The Number of Women-Owned Businesses is Growing 2.5 Times Faster Than National Average.

Recently, we applied to become a certified Washington State Office of Minority & Women’s Business Enterprise. Primarily, we chose to do this because we’re proud that VMO is a woman-owned business and wanted formal recognition of this fact. We also applied because we knew it would give us access to opportunities we might not otherwise be aware of or have an opportunity to bid on – such as elusive government contract work – and also because certification would give us access to preferred interest rates for loans and credit lines.

About five minutes into the process, we realized that this was more labor-intensive and complicated than we ever dreamed possible. Five minutes after that, we wondered why it was so difficult and tedious – shouldn’t we be able to just send copies of our drivers’ licenses and our VMO business license and call it a day? We joked that perhaps we could throw in a naked photo for good measure to expedite things.

Apparently not.

The application is about 20 pages long. It requires a great deal of narrative information-sharing, data-gathering, documentation submission, and signed releases of interest by spouses of business owners. We estimate the entire process cost us about $20,000 in non-billable time.

To qualify for certification, you must meet all of the following criteria:

  • Be a minority or a woman
  • Own at least 51% of the business and show contribution of capital and expertise
  • Control the managerial and day-to-day operations and possess the power to direct the management and policies of the business
  • Be a U.S. citizen or permanent U.S. resident
  • Be economically disadvantaged, i.e., have a personal net worth less than $1.32 million

We thought of and talked about many questions through this process, such as:

  • Is the business playing field still so uneven that certifications like this are important and useful?
  • Is 51% ownership too low of a bar to be considered a Woman’s Business Enterprise, despite controlling interest? We’re 100% woman-owned – should there be a special category for that scenario?
  • What if you’re a minority and a woman – should there be an extra-special category for that?
  • What if you’re mixed race? What is the minimum % minority you need to be?
  • What if you’re transgender? What if you began life as a man and now identify as a woman?
  • Why isn’t there a certification process for ‘Men’s Business Enterprises’? And would that make them especially eligible or ineligible for anything as a result?
  • Why do we have to provide such tedious, detailed proof that we’re really women and we really own this business?

We found a few insights and answers along the way.

Gender-based income and pay inequity is clearly a hot topic online these days and is alive and doing troublingly well in our hometown Seattle, as well as many other cities nationally and globally. A recent GeekWire article confirms: “Women working in King County make 78.6 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn.” A depressing, fact-based truth.

I have been talking to two amazing nonprofit organizations who we aim to donate pro bono services to, both of whom focus on helping women, and often women of color, become even more effective and influential leaders in life and business. They confirm that women who are minorities often suffer from extreme poverty and lack of opportunity, more than any other segment in our society. Add language and culture-based challenges, as is the case with those who are new to English and/or the U.S., and it gets exponentially harder for them to succeed – especially in business.

We found some information about why this process is so difficult. We learned that some companies who are not truly women-owned or legitimately functional businesses (shell companies) apply for certification to get access to desirable contracts, looking to benefit from processes and tools intended to help minorities and women get a leg up. That’s why certification bodies such as the one mentioned above have to dig so deep, to ensure the benefits granted with the certification are truly being directed to intended recipients.

And we realize that the black and white lines defining who is a minority and who is a woman are blurring, and continue to blur as the world becomes more global, more integrated, and less dependent on classic definitions of gender, especially as it relates to identity and sexuality.

Are certifications for Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises becoming somewhat archaic concepts and frameworks given today’s complexities? If so, there’s still a need for organizations and leaders to address the inequities we all see so clearly in this world. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and others like him are leading the charge, but there are too few of them. What else can and should be done to address issues like continued income and pay gaps and business ownership statistics?

We have only begun this conversation, internally at VMO and externally with others. We have much more to learn and understand, and we look forward to that. In the meantime, we hope to achieve certification within 45-60 days. We are excited about the possibility and look forward to a sense of pride and potential business benefits. We wonder why more women we know haven’t applied yet. Maybe this article has already provided the answer.

We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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