Small biz leader tells women owners to take charge

Thursday - 2/7/2013, 6:10am EST

AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- 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 non-farm 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?