Business owners are often aware that there are special opportunities available to businesses owned by women, minorities, veterans and certain other groups. However, it is sometimes unclear exactly what those opportunities are, who affords them and who is eligible. The answers to these questions can vary. Generally, many government agencies have developed programming aimed at removing marketplace barriers for businesses owned and operated by certain groups that have historically been underrepresented or disadvantaged in business. There are also private sector companies and organizations with similar programs. Taking advantage of one or more of these programs usually requires some form of certification.

One such certification category is that of the “women-owned” business. Some other common names for this type of certification include “women business enterprise,” “women’s business enterprise” and “women-owned small business.” This article discusses what it means to be “women-owned,” and some of the related benefits.  Because the exact qualifications and benefits can vary greatly from one program to another, we do not cover all available opportunities. We will, however, hit on some of the more significant ones at the national level and highlight few others as examples.

One thing to keep in mind is that most, if not all, programming available to women-owned businesses have parallel programs aimed at other certified groups (minorities, veterans, small businesses, etc.). Checking with the U.S. Small Business Administration (“SBA”) as well as your local government agency responsible for business oversight and regulation is usually a great place to start.

Certification and How to Qualify

First, we will cover generally how to qualify and get certified. As noted, each program has its own requirements, and we could not possibly discuss them all here. However, to be eligible for certification as women-owned, the business generally must be majority owned, operated and directed by one or more women. Because SBA certification serves as a good example of the requirements of most other certification programs, we will discuss those requirements in more detail.

To take advantage of federal government set-asides and some of the other SBA benefits discussed below, certification as a women-owned small business (“WOSB”) or an economically disadvantaged women-owned small business (“EDWOSB”) can be attained through application to a Third Party Certifier (“TPC”) approved by the SBA.  There are presently four TPCs approved by the SBA:

Some of the TPCs also have their own certification programs apart from the SBA. Applicants to WBENC, for example, can apply for “Women Business Enterprise” (“WBE”) certification at the same time as WOSB certification. WBE certification requirements are generally the same with respect to ownership and operation by women, but the SBA small business requirements (discussed below) are not applicable.

Certification can also be attained through a regulatory self-certification process; however, this process will soon be unavailable.  (The National Defense Authorization Act eliminated self-certification for the WOSB and EDWOSB programs for Fiscal Year 2016.  The SBA is currently reviewing how to implement the change, so for the time being, women-owned small businesses may still self-certify.)  For other small business contracting designations, self-certification will remain available.

To qualify under the WOSB program, the applicant company must meet the following requirements:

  1. Be “small” in its primary industry in accordance with SBA’s size standards for that industry (i.e. according to the appropriate North American Industry Classification System (“NAICS”) code, and including all affiliates. As noted above, this requirement is not applicable for some of the non-SBA certifications.);
  2. Be at least 51% unconditionally and directly owned by women who are U.S. citizens (Note: Most non-SBA programs allow lawful permanent residents to qualify as well);
  3. Women must manage the day-to-day operations;
  4. Women must make the long-term decisions for the business; and
  5. A woman must the hold highest officer position in the business and must work at the business full-time during normal working hours.

For corporations, requirements 3 and 4 above mean (a) women must make up a majority of the board of directors or have a majority of the board votes through weighted voting, and (b) women must make up 51% of the voting power, sit on the board and have enough voting power to overcome any supermajority requirement.

Further, to qualify as an EDWOSB, the following requirements must be met by the businesses owners, in addition to the WOSB requirements above (again, note that these requirements are generally not applicable to non-SBA certification programs, though some state and local governments do also have programs for small and disadvantaged businesses):

  1. Have a personal net worth (assets minus liabilities) of less than $750,000 (excluding ownership in business and primary personal residence, income reinvested or used to pay taxes of business, funds reinvested in IRA or other retirement accounts and transferred assets within two years if to or on behalf of immediate family member for select purposes);
  2. Adjusted gross income average over three years is $350,000 or less (excluding income reinvested or used to pay taxes of business); and
  3. Fair market value of all assets is $6 million or less.

The certification process itself can be onerous, and application to a TPC requires submission of extensive documentation to demonstrate the requisite ownership, governance and financial metrics. Such documentation can include the following:

  • Organizational documentation (articles of incorporation, articles of organization, partnership registration, bylaws, shareholders agreement, operating agreement, partnership agreement, etc. as applicable)
  • Board and Shareholder/owner meeting minutes and written consents
  • Financial statements
  • Tax returns
  • Debt instruments
  • Equipment rental and purchase agreements
  • Real estate leases
  • Capital contribution/equity documentation
  • Employee lists
  • Payroll information
  • W-2s/1099s for officers, directors and owners
  • Management agreements
  • Consulting agreements
  • Franchise agreements
  • Other significant agreements

Following review of the application and supporting documentation, there is usually a site visit.

Aside from the SBA/federal government, most states and municipalities have their own women-owned business programs. The certification requirements, process and available benefits are dictated by the specific state/municipal requirements, as promulgated by the government agencies responsible for the programs. If interested in a state or local program, check with the agency responsible for small business or government contracting in your area. There are also other non-government organizations that have programs for businesses owned and led by women.

Benefits and Opportunities

The opportunities available to businesses that become certified as women-owned can generally be divided into four categories: access, education, financing and marketing/promotion.


The principal benefit available to women-owned businesses comes by way of access to contracting opportunities, government contracts in particular. At both the federal and local level, a portion of government contracts are set aside to be awarded to businesses with women-owned certification (as well as other certifications).  Furthermore, not only are certain contracts awarded directly to certified women-owned businesses, but general contractors, service providers and other businesses performing work under set-aside contracts are usually required to use subcontractors, manufacturers and/or suppliers who carry an appropriate certification as well.

The federal government’s annual procurement goal requires that 5% of contract dollars be awarded to WOSBs.  In Fiscal Year 2015, that 5% amounted to $17.8 billion. That’s significant, and exciting, especially considering the SBA women-owned business program had only been around for four years at that point.

Here in Florida, the Office of Supplier Diversity has a similar program, allowing women-owned (as well as veteran and minority-owned) small businesses certified by the state to be the first tier of businesses referred to state agencies with supplier diversity purchase order and contract opportunities. Drilling down further, Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa each have their own procurement goals and programming directed at certified women-owned businesses. These are just examples of what is taking place across the country. See our list below of state by state programming for opportunities in other states.

The benefits of access are not solely through government. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of companies that have supplier diversity initiatives or otherwise are part of a broader network of businesses seeking to do business with women-owned enterprises. Certification gives women businesses access to these networks and opportunities. By way of example, PNC Financial Services Group, Coca-Cola, Walmart, Verizon Communication, Cisco Systems, Hilton Worldwide, and Pfizer all have significant supplier diversity programs. Here at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, we have partnered with organizations like The National Association for Women Lawyers and the Women in Law Empowerment Forum to advance our own women-focused diversity initiatives.

It is important to note here that different businesses accept different certification programs. Some even have their own. Considering the businesses you want to target and the networks you want to join should be a key consideration informing your decision as to which certifier or certification program to utilize.


Another significant benefit to being a certified women-owned business is the ability to take advantage of educational resources offered by government programs, certifying organizations and other companies. These types of educational programs typically include mentoring, educational/training programs and free or low cost consulting.

For example, the NWBOC, one of the SBA approved Third Party Certifiers as noted above, offers a mentoring program in which NWBOC certified members are paired with an NWBOC corporate partner to help with RFPs, business development strategies and procurement readiness. The NWBOC also offers trainings and webinars throughout the year to help its members make the most of their certifications and grow their businesses. Each of the other TPCs offers similar mentoring/educational opportunities, as do most government programs.


Many local governments and companies taken steps to make grants, loans and other funding more accessible to women-owned businesses. Grants are not as prevalent or easy to obtain as people often think, but they are out there. Some grant programs may require official certification through third parties, and others simply have their own eligibility requirements. The following are a few grants for women-owned (or other women-focused) businesses:

In addition to grants, there are programs aimed at helping women-owned businesses secure loans. Florida, for example, has a Loan Mobilization Program through the Office of Supplier Diversity, which assists certified women-owned (and other) businesses in obtaining working capital and lines of credit through participating lenders when working on a state contracted project.


Finally, being certified and connected to a women-owned business network often comes with opportunities for marketing and promotion. These include everything from invitations to special events and networking opportunities, recognition through industry publications and award programs, sponsorship opportunities and authorization to use women-owned logos on marketing materials. Check with the program(s) and certifier(s) in which you are interested to see what specific marketing and promotion opportunities are available.

To find certification programs and benefits open to women entrepreneurs beyond those discussed here, check with your state and local governments. We have included a list of some state sponsored programs below. Of course, the value of a good ole’ fashioned Google search should not be underestimated (but be wary of scams).

All in all, programs focused on women entrepreneurs have been very successful in recent years bringing more women-led businesses into the marketplace and helping them succeed. If your business is women-led, a little time invested into researching and applying for women-owned certification could have a nice payoff in the end. Regardless, you’ll join women everywhere in the broader endeavor to prove James Brown wrong. Though, as women entrepreneurs, I suppose you’re already doing that. Rock on, ladies.

Select Programs Benefitting Women, Minority and Disadvantaged Businesses by State:

Alabama             Alaska          Arizona          Arkansas          California        Colorado            Connecticut          Delaware          Florida          Georgia        Hawaii          Illinois          Indiana          Iowa          Kansas      Kentucky          Maine          Maryland         Massachusetts 
Michigan   Minnesota          Mississippi           Missouri        Montana          Nebraska     Nevada         New Hampshire       New Jersey
New Mexico      New York     North Carolina       North Dakota        Ohio       Oklahoma        Oregon     Pennsylvania       Rhode Island
South Carolina       South Dakota       Tennessee     Texas        Utah      Vermont      Virginia      Washington      West Virginia          Wisconsin            Wyoming