The Pentagon building is seen in this undated aerial photo. headquarters of the Department of Defense, in Washington, DC 
The Pentagon building is seen in this undated aerial photo. headquarters of the Department of Defense, in Washington, DC  - 

It has been 20 years since the government set a goal of awarding five percent of federal contracts to women-owned small businesses – and not once has it met that goal.  

A third of businesses are now owned by women, and being a federal contractor can give business a significant boost. Having that relationship with a federal agency can open a lot of doors. Your business grows faster than other businesses. 

Still, Denise Barreto had another reason for signing up: "What motivated me to become a contractor on all levels for the government was the second I set foot inside of it and saw how it was run," she says.

Let’s just say she knew the government could benefit from her business sense and efficiency. Barreto got her first close-up look at local government when she was elected to her village board in Illinois several years ago. Her company is called Relationships Matter Now and it does strategic planning. It has landed some government work, but a federal contract has proved elusive.  Barreto says she has been in the federal system since 2012, and she has bid on eight contracts. She hasn’t won any.

It takes most people a while to get their first contract. An American Express OPEN study shows that in 2013 it took both men and women about two years and at least four bids before they succeeded.  Lynne Beaman is CEO of North Carolina company Highlands Environmental Solutions. She bid for the first time this summer, and recently found out she didn’t get the job.  Beaman says the whole process of certification and putting in a bid was byzantine. She thinks a lot of women prefer to take care of the business they already have rather than jump through a series of federal hoops to expand.  But she plowed on.

“We also have three children, two biological and one adopted from Russia,” she says. “So I feel if I could handle all the paperwork to get a foreign born orphan out of another country, then I can probably figure my way around this maze.”

She’s not discouraged by her rejection, and has other bids out right now.

Julie Weeks runs Womenable, an organization that supports female entrepreneurship. She says many government agencies are meeting their goal of giving five percent of contracts to women’s businesses, but the Department of Defense is missing the target. That matters because, Weeks says, “about two-thirds of federal spending is done by the Department of Defense.” So if the DOD misses its goal, the overall government goal won’t be met.

Weeks says it’s not that women-owned businesses don’t meet the DOD’s needs. Many make uniforms or do catering. I spoke to one woman who owns a company that bomb-proofs buildings. But Weeks says the DOD is a huge, complicated beast, and moving the needle is tough.

Denise Barreto says one reason few women get these government opportunities is they don’t know enough about them. She says government outreach needs improvement.  “I think having a real sexy website is good," she says, and "having an easy website that somebody can maneuver and understand is better. But nothing beats the opportunity for people to have face to face interactions with these decision makers."

She says women need more chances to meet representatives from Washington in the flesh, at events around the country. That’s what finally landed Barreto her first small federal contract. Her path was unusual, but direct: she didn’t even have to put through another bid. Someone at a federal agency heard her speak at an event, introduced herself, and Barreto ended up with her first opportunity to streamline the government.