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Female small business owners forum focuses on leveling the playing field

Being a female business leader is a lot like being a mom, says Jenny Steffensmeier, owner of Steffensmeier Welding and Manufacturing, located in the southeast Iowa town of Pilot Grove.

Much like her kids, “I’ve got employees who just don’t listen to me,” said Steffensmeier, who took over the business after her husband died six year ago. Though some of her employees may act like the business is just a game, “it’s reality, so we just have to work harder,” she said.

Female business owners face unique challenges, particularly in male-dominated industries like construction, said Perlla Deluca, president of Southeast Constructors Inc. in Des Moines. Being persistent — to the point of being annoying — is one strategy that Deluca has employed in highly competitive areas such as winning federal contracts, she said. Her company has done work for the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service and the General Services Administration.

Deluca and Steffensmeier, who are both graduates of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program in Iowa, on Tuesday appeared on a live webinar panel discussion hosted by Punchbowl News, an online political news forum in Washington, D.C. They were preceded on the 30-minute webinar by U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, who is a member of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

Disparities experienced by women-owned small businesses during the pandemic recovery are significant, according to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Voices.  Those disparities between female small business owners and male small business owners include:

– Nearly half (48%) of female-owned small businesses are struggling financially due to the continued impact of COVID-19 (versus 39% of male-owned small businesses).
– Forty-seven percent of all female small business owners report having less than three months’ worth of cash on hand (versus 40% for male-owned small businesses).
– Fifty-six percent of women business owners reported that they or their employees faced mental health issues as a result of the pandemic (versus 40% of male owners).
– Fifty-seven percent of female small business owners under the age of 45 said a return to remote learning for kids would make it difficult to retain employees due to child care challenges (versus 41% of male owners).

While the federal government meets its overall goal of awarding 23% of contracts to small businesses, it falls short of meeting the goal of 5% of contract spending to women-owned businesses, according to the 10,000 Small Businesses data. That particular goal has only been reached twice — in 2015 and in 2019 — since it was established in 1994.

Ernst said she has been active in trying to level the playing field for female business owners by including more agency mandates in the form of minimum federal contracting requirements in legislation. The Republican senator called the 5% goal for contracts to women-owned small businesses “paltry,” and said that more pressure on federal agencies is needed to get them to comply with the mandates.

“In seven years [in Congress] I’ve found that even if you set the law, getting agencies to comply … it is outrageous,” she said. “They will do what they do. Are you going to fine a federal agency?”  

Asked about the Paycheck Protection Program, Ernst noted that 61,000 businesses in Iowa benefited from the forgivable loans.

“In my estimation it was one of the best bills that we could have included in the CARES Act,” she said. She praised PPP loans as “a good example of what we can do in emergency situations,” and said that it sets a model for potential future emergencies. “But I think we have to remember that the pandemic was an extreme circumstance,” she said.  

The women business owners were asked: If you could wave a wand to get the government to do something to help small businesses, what would that be?

Improving the procurement process to benefit small businesses is one issue that needs some magic, Steffensmeier said. The difficulty of applying to win federal contract work has stalled her efforts, she said. “I haven’t given up — I’ve just tabled it again,” Steffensmeier said. “I will tackle it again soon.”

From Deluca’s perspective, more training is needed for small businesses on how to access capital. “When I took [the 10,000 Small Businesses program] I found that women get fewer loans,” she said. “Because I’m a woman in construction, [banks believe that it’s] too much risk.”

Lenders need to remember that these are small businesses, with an emphasis on the word small, Deluca said. “Don’t expect us to show up with new equipment and lots of people.”

Read more: Visit this link to read a June 2020 Business Record article about Deluca’s journey to entrepreneurship as an immigrant from Brazil.

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