SBA regional administrator emboldens minority entrepreneurs at federal contract summit
Alfred Washington thought four years of college went by fast. But that was nothing compared to how fast nine years flew by as a participant in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program that helps minority-owned businesses earn government contracts. Washington, who is president and CEO of Top Notch Security, started in the program in 2005 and attained his first government contract in 2009. “My first 8(a) contract was with Homeland Security,” Washington said. “That contract jumpstarted my business.”
Washington was part of a panel of Memphis area small business owners who shared their success stories about the 8(a) program with other minority-owned small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs during a contracting summit held in the Bert Bornblum Library on the Macon Cove Campus on July 31. The event was hosted by the Tennessee Small Business Development Center (TBSCD). Speakers discussed programs designed to help minority business owners access and compete for government contracts through the 8(a) program. Over 100 attendees learned about the eligibility requirements for the 8(a)program, various small business certifications, business development strategies, and how to market to the government. “It is very important for businesses to know about this program,” said Rory Thomas, TSBDC executive director.
The 8(a) Business Development program provides a broad range of assistance to businesses that are owned by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. Participation in the program is divided into two phases over nine years and offers help with mentoring, procurement, business counseling, training, financial, and other management and technical assistance. “We want our businesses to use the tools and resources available to them through this program,” Thomas said. TSBDC has assisted numerous small businesses that grew and created jobs thanks to the 8(a) program.
Participants in the seminar also heard advice from Ashley Bell, regional administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration, who was in Memphis for the first time. Bell oversees Region IV which encompasses eight southeastern states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, and has oversight over $5 billion in SBA-backed loans. Regional counselors have assisted over 225,000 entrepreneurs and its contracting programs account for over 23 percent of all federal contracts awarded. “I’m really excited to be here,” Bell said. “This is important for a lot of reasons.”
Bell said even though there are a lot of rules and procedures that businesses have to follow to be a part of the program, the 8(a) program has changed lives. He related a story about a 23-year-old man who moved from Atlanta to Alabama to help care for his mother and started a moving business on weekends to make some extra cash. The young man called the local Small Business Development Center staff who enrolled him in to the 8(a) program and put together a business plan that allowed him to compete for contracts to move military personnel in and out of a military base 35 miles away from where he lived. Bell said two years later, the man won his first contract for $3.5 million and today grosses $11 million. “When he started that business, he was making $1,200 a month in profit and was just trying to help his mother out,” Bell said. “He went through the 8(a) process, did everything right, and by the time he turned 25 years-old he had a $3.5 million contract. Now he has one with US-Mattress moving their store locations.” Bell said the man was able to leverage that one contract with the Department of Defense into contracts with businesses in the private sector. “We need more businesses and entrepreneurs to sign up for 8(a),” Bell said. “This isn’t a hand out. This is a hand up. This program has changed the trajectory of families and generations.” Currently, there are only 24 8(a) businesses in this district of Tennessee.
Cliftina Carter, owner of Carter Safety Solutions, won her first 8(a) government contract in 2004 to audit the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Although she has been out of the 8(a) program from a long time, she still has government contracts with agencies like the Department of Transportation. “I’d say about 70 percent of mine are government contracts,” Carter said. Washington said like Carter, he’s also still winning government contracts and that the 8(a) program really helped grow his business. “We now operate in eight states,” Washington added. “A lot of my 8 (a) contracts ended and I still have them based on that performance.” Eric Terrell, senior manager for the SBA Tennessee District office, said that’s proof that the 8(a) program works. “I wouldn’t be standing here if it didn’t,” Terrell said. “I know it works. Can you be successful? Absolutely. I believe in it.”
For more information about the 8(a) program, visit www.tsbdc.org/swtcc or call (901) 333-5085.