NEW YORK -- Barbara Kasoff has a message for women business owners: If you don't like the way government regulations affect your business, stop whining and get involved.
The founder of Women Impacting Public Policy, a group that lobbies lawmakers on behalf of women-owned small businesses, isn't shy about telling women they need to take charge if they want their businesses to succeed -- especially when it comes to government policy.
"You, the woman business owner, need to get involved," Kasoff says.
Female business owners are a growing force in the U.S. There were more than 8.3 million women-owned businesses in the country as of 2012, up 54 percent from 1997, according to a study commissioned by American Express. The most recent census figures available on businesses show that there were 7.8 million women-owned businesses in the country in 2007. That was nearly one-third of all nonfarm businesses in the U.S.
"We are part of all the discussions," says Kasoff. "No longer are we in a situation of being told what will happen. We're part of the team."
WIPP has over one million members across the country including those in 68 affiliated advocacy groups. Kasoff is particularly proud of WIPP's success in government contracting issues. The group lobbied for the Women Owned Small Business program, which took effect in 2011, under which the government targets granting 5 percent of eligible federal contracts, or about $20 billion, to companies owned by women. Its most recent success: In late December, Congress approved a defense-spending bill that removed caps on the size of those contracts. Caps that other small business owners didn't face.
But those achievements haven't been easy. First, she says, she had to get women owners to realize that government policy does affect them. And that they have to join forces to get the changes they want.
"If we didn't have all of us working together, we never would have had the WOSB program at all. We would never have won the challenge to have the caps (on contracts to women-owned businesses) removed," Kasoff says.
Kasoff had already been a business owner when she founded WIPP in 2001. She had owned 11 Voice-Tel franchises, which supplied voice messaging services, in Michigan and also owned Voice Response Corp., which provided call center services as well as voice messaging. She sold the businesses by 1999, and continued working for Voice Response until 2002.
Even with her success, Kasoff had questions about what the government could do to help her as a woman business owner. And she didn't feel that her opinions were being heard in Washington.
"I was a business owner and I didn't see that I had a voice," she says. "I looked around and I didn't see that anyone could help me."
So she did what she now urges other businesswomen to do -- she got involved.
Kasoff spoke recent with The Associated Press about the issues that women business owners face. Here are excerpts of the interview, edited for clarity and brevity:
Q. What led you to found WIPP?
A. As a business owner, I networked, I did all the things that business owners do -- be grouchy, complain. How am I going to get the answers? How do some people get the government contracts? How come some business owners are always in the front pages of the newspaper? Who's representing me as a woman business owner? That's when I jumped in, got a group of people together, said, this is my idea, and they said, we'll support you. I surprisingly got bought out (of my business), and so I started doing this full-time.
Q. What challenges do you still face in getting more contracts for women-owned businesses?
A. This is a wonderful issue, a challenging issue, but wonderful because there is an enormous opportunity ahead of us. The challenges are to make sure that the congressional goal of 5 percent (of federal contracts being set aside) for women business owners is met. In 2011, only 3.98 percent of our government contracts were awarded to women business owners.
It's been a primary challenge to build awareness and enthusiasm among women owners for the opportunity that's out there so we can get them to compete successfully. We've got to work together, the public sector, the private sector. It means partnerships with the Small Business Administration, with the SBA district and regional offices and its Women's Business Centers.
Q. What has stood in the way of women getting more government contracts?
A. Women business owners did not recognize the revenue opportunities. They weren't educated (about them). They didn't have the tools and resources from the public and private sector. Nobody was focused on it, nobody said, here's a gap and we have to meet it. We need to smooth out the legislative kinks and barriers that still exist, make sure we're working together with the SBA, to give women training, to get women registered on SAM (Systems for Award Management, the federal contract awards database) so that they can take advantage of the opportunity.
Q. Congress created the 5 percent goal for contracts for women-owned businesses in 1994. It's never been met. Why has it taken so long for women to win more contracts?
A. Government is a big ship to turn. It takes time. Change does not come overnight. Some of the more positive things I see are the government's recognition and ability to bring together partners like WIPP or American Express Open and other corporate entities. When you build together these public and private sector partnerships, you're going to increase the opportunities. I think it's been slow. It's been just a year in terms of the WOSB program -- it seems like forever. We're treading water; we're not seeing the gains. They've resolved some legislative issues like the cap (on the size of contracts for women-owned businesses), but also they're putting together the partnerships and starting to scale the effort. We're willing go to out on a limb, and believe that by the end of 2014, we're going to hit that 5 percent. And I want to exceed that 5 percent.
Q. Is it harder for women business owners to get a loan?
A. Access to capital is tight for all small business owners, whether male or female. But at this point, women have to work harder in order to be successful. You don't hear the stories you used to hear as much now -- like, "I have to bring my husband in to get a loan." But some of it is still here, and some of it frankly has to do with education and preparation by women owners (before they apply for a loan). But as women business owners are becoming more mature business owners they are ramping up their ability to have the right infrastructure in order to successfully get loans.
Q. What industries are seeing the most growth in women-owned small businesses?
A. We have an awful lot of women in information technology and in services like staffing. And we're building our presence in other nontraditional areas that have been difficult for us. We're getting headway in construction. I have members in the missile defense area. But in some manufacturing, like weapons of war, it might be more difficult. We don't have the numbers or the years of experience there.
Q. Where do you go from here?
A. There'll be no lack of legislation challenges. The 5 percent contracting goal is ridiculous. It needs to be higher. I think that the uncertainty that we have right now in this country makes it very difficult to plan. We want to be able to help the political climate change so it's more productive.
We don't have enough women in Congress in positions of power. We have only 98 of the 535 seats. If we're going to really have a role and are going to change things like the climate in Washington, we have to get more women elected to Congress. Women in Congress have always come to our rescue. When we fought so hard in procurement, they came out, one after another and supported our efforts. So we need to have many more women in positions of power.
There are way too many women who are self-employed and have no employees -- 88 percent of women business owners. We have to change that "psychology of small." If you want to grow, you have to have the realization that it can't be just you (working in your company). At some point you'll max out. So women business owners need financing for growth and the awareness of the opportunities. Too many women are thinking small instead of thinking big.