2014 SAME Small Business Conference in Kansas CItyLast week I attended the 2014 SAME Small Business Conference (SBC) in Kansas City. There was a great mix of military and SAME personnel, small businesses and big businesses attending and exhibiting — more than 1,800 in total. As a project manager for government and military architecture projects, I look forward to this event each year. It’s one of the best ways to connect with key military decision makers and small businesses. Here are a few highlights from the event.

Military Commitment to Small Businesses

SAME — the Society for American Military Engineers — has always been an advocate for small businesses, and this conference demonstrates that commitment. Personnel from all military branches attended, which is a testament to the government’s commitment to bringing key leaders together to connect with and mentor small businesses. The goal is to build strong relationships and provide small businesses with new opportunities. It shows that the leadership takes small business programs seriously and are putting the programs to work.

The small businesses each have a lot of pride and enthusiasm for the work they do, and it was refreshing to see. They weren’t afraid to network, share what they do, create new partnerships and ask for tools and federal programs they need to succeed. This was fascinating to watch and experience.

One-on-One Networking Sessions

Among  the most productive events of the conference were the Matched Networking Sessions, where small businesses met face-to-face with representatives from government and large businesses. Each big business was assigned an hourlong networking time that was divided into 10-minute sessions, providing six small businesses the opportunity to introduce themselves, explain their business and explore partnership opportunities.

This was a great opportunity for small businesses and big businesses alike. The one-on-ones were particularly advantageous for the small businesses, as they selected which companies they wanted to meet with based on their business needs and goals. One tip for small businesses next year: Research the big businesses you want to team with and sign up for those sessions early; they fill up quickly! Many small businesses we met with provided one-page descriptions of their firm capabilities, which was super helpful for me and will serve as a great quick-reference guide for post-conference follow-up.

Women-Owned Small Business Session

I attended many presentations during the conference, but the session I got the most out of — and which had the most engaged crowd — was the Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) Session. The group was outspoken, which led to a fascinating dialog among attendees and panel members. Several attendees asked about the WOSB program and expressed their concerns with WOSBs not having the opportunity to compete as the prime consultant for federal RFQs since there are not sole-source opportunities for WOSBs. WOSBs do not currently have a sore-sourcing capability and were asking SAME if this was going to happen.

Presenters suggested that WOSBs get to know their competitors and strategize with them to make sure they are responding to particular “sources sought” solicitations that meet their needs. If more WOSBs submit on the same “sources sought,” the federal government will recognize the need to make some of these solicitations a “set aside” for WOSBs.

Most government agencies are not currently meeting WOSB goals, so plenty of opportunity is available for WOSBs who take advantage of this strategy. There’s another category called Economically Disadvantaged Women Owned Small Businesses (EDWOSB). This category is based on the owner’s financial situation. Knowing if your WOSB qualifies in that category could be a differentiator.

One particularly interesting stat about women in business: Roughly 28% of all companies in the United States are women-owned, but of those companies, only about 4% are awarded government work.

As always, the Small Business Conference proved extremely valuable, and I’ve already marked my calendar for the 2015 Small Business Conference November 4-6 in New Orleans. I encourage you to do the same. If you attended the event in Kansas City this year, I’d love to hear about your highlights from the event, including which sessions were your favorites.

Wendy Hageman, RCID, LEED AP, DBIA, is the architecture and interior design department manager for the Burns & McDonnell Aviation & Federal Group. She’s a senior project manager for government and municipal architecture projects.