It's a new day in Congress, and women business owners enjoy top billing. In its first hearing of the year, the Senate Committee on Small Business decided to make women's enterprises a focal point, marvels Amy Millman, executive director of the National Women's Business Council. "Almost all the senators [on the committee] came to this hearing, which never happens, and they were right on with women business owners," she says. "They knew the statistics; they talked about women business owners in their districts and what they'd like to do to promote women-owned and homebased businesses.
"Three years ago, we couldn't even get the Senate to hold a hearing on women. [This] was like dying and going to heaven!"
Entrepreneurial women testified about obstacles in the federal procurement process, access to capital, self-employment training and technical assistance for women coming off welfare. They also noted the Small Business Administration's (SBA) failure to meet its goal of 5 percent of contracts to women. The SBA's Office of Women's Business Ownership (OWBO), however, earned nothing but high praises.
And the committee intends to do more than just listen. "We are planning to reauthorize [OWBO] for three to five years," says Ken Bricker of the Senate Small Business Committee. "And we feel strongly about making sure women are getting their share of federal contracts.
"[Committee chair] Sen. Kit Bond is deeply committed to expanding opportunities for women entrepreneurs. Not to take note of their increasing power and economic expansion would be foolish."
"Usually at hearings, people are arguing and upset," says Millman. "But these women came in to talk about the good news, to say they're moving ahead and to ask the government to start moving with them. The members of Congress were [saying], `We want to know what we can do to help you more.' And we in the audience were just thinking, `Finally, somebody is catching on!' "