To MWBE or not to MWBE, that is the Question

submitted by:  Elin Barton , CEO of White Knight Productions

My husband was, at first, not a huge fan of the concept of MWBE certification. If you’re not familiar with it, the designation stands for “Minority or Woman Business Enterprise”, meaning that the majority shareholders of a company are either female and/or a minority. The reason that this is important is that there is a lot of money at stake. In New York State the governor has deemed that 30% of all state contract work should be given, whenever possible, to a MWBE-certified company, which is one of the highest percentages in the nation.

My husband’s objection to the whole MWBE thing came not because he doesn’t want my company to get more work, but because he felt that the longer we as a society continue to draw attention to our differences – whether race or sex or anything else – we help to perpetuate the myth that we are not all the same. I do see his point, in theory anyway. People are people, after all, and doing any kind of business should be based on a company’s ability to deliver a good product or service at a competitive price.

However, the truth of the matter is, it rarely works that way. Decisions about whom a company decides to do business with are more often than not based on connections and relationships at least equally as much (maybe more so) than ability and acumen.  In my small city in upstate New York I have repeatedly experienced the challenges and frustrations of not being in the “old boys network”.  I’ve even had people directly tell me that they were unhappy with a competitor’s work, but that they would not be changing vendors because “we play golf together” or “it’s the way we’ve always done things.”

It’s certainly any company’s prerogative whom they decide to do business with, but as someone who has been struggling for nearly eight years to “break into the market”, I was ready to try something new that might finally give me an advantage, and to consider trying to get MWBE certification.

I was at first unsure about applying to become an MWBE. I had heard the process was daunting (an understatement) and was annoyed that I had to provide so much paperwork about my company when anyone – from my banker to my employees – could tell you that I am indeed a female and that I am fully responsible for everything from the company’s payroll and finances to decisions around hiring and firing, sales, strategy – everything, really. I felt that it was obvious, and given all that I was doing, I didn’t have time to add a layer of paperwork to everything else.  I also didn’t do much government work, so wasn’t even sure if the whole ordeal was going to lead to anything worthwhile.

But finally, in 2014, a potential contract came up via one of our strategic partners, and they told me that if I could get MWBE certified it would be easier for them to make the case for using my company. Finally I was motivated to look into the process further, and I visited the Entrepreneurial Assistance Office at our local community college for guidance. That office was extremely helpful in orienting me to the process and to getting me started on the road to certification.

They explained that everything is submitted online, and if you go to the site and start answering some basic questions about your company, your portal into the site will populate with a list of documents you need to submit, based on your legal business structure. Be prepared that the required paperwork is significant, but one of the nice features of the portal is that you can work on the application over a period of time. You will see a list of red and green checkmarks – red if you haven’t yet completed a section of required docs and questions and that beautiful green mark when you have.

The state gives you a couple of months to complete the process, and if you need more time you can “request an extension” which gives you additional time. Whenever the extension period is ending you will receive an email letting you know that you need to complete the process or renew again. I offer you a word of caution: if you forget to renew your extension your entire file will be deleted, causing you to have to start the process over from scratch. Ask me how I know this.  Yes… that happened, and I assure you, it was a dark, dark day when my file disappeared.

In fact, I was so discouraged after “the incident” that it took me almost another year before I applied again. This time, with another potential contract hanging in the balance, I was determined to get the certification. Having made the decision to take the whole thing more seriously the second time around, I blocked out days in my schedule and started gathering paperwork, facts and figures.

I finally completed the application and although I was “fast tracked” due to my pending contract, the entire process took several months. I ended up having an in-person interview at my place of business, which surprised me, as many of my friends who got certified were not required to go through this step. The gentlemen who visited me said that my case was flagged because my husband is a minority shareholder in my company. Because there is so much money at stake, they explained that there’s also a lot of fraud that they’re trying to weed out – companies that are actually well-engrained in that old boys network but which are trying to give themselves an extra advantage by getting MWBE certified.

So, how does this story end? I finally did receive my certification last October. I got the contract that had spurred me to apply the second time, and then I started doing more research and participating in webinars and other events to learn how to best leverage my new certification. I’m still figuring that part out, but I have certainly had some contracts and opportunities that came my way at least partly because of the certification.

I wouldn’t say that becoming a WBE has completely leveled the playing field for me, but I greatly appreciate the fact that it’s making things a little bit easier and sometimes has given me a competitive advantage. And what about my husband? Well, he is slowly coming around to the idea of the MWBE, though he will still say that he believes it fights discrimination with another type of discrimination. I’d answer that by saying that one day in a perfect world we may not need to make allowances for companies that are women or minority owned, but today, with women still making 79 cents on the dollar compared to men, and where old boys networks are still the status quo, it feels like a positive and necessary step.

 

Elin Barton (Cornell ’91), is the CEO of White Knight Productions, a firm that is known for compelling videos and digital marketing expertise. She also works as a business coach and consultant and frequently speaks on entrepreneurship, overcoming perceived failures and the importance of changing your mindset first, for future successes.

 

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