If you’re a small business owner who belongs to an underrepresented group, you may be eligible for a business certification that qualifies you for new—and sometimes exclusive—business opportunities.

There are two major categories of business certifications:

  1. Government-backed business certifications that make your business eligible to win certain federal contracts.
  2. Other business certifications that provide private-sector opportunities,

There are several types of business certifications available, including those for women, minorities, veterans, and LGBT folks. Here’s what you need to know about some of the most common types of business certifications for entrepreneurs and small business owners who are part of groups that qualify.

Women-Owned Small Business Certification

One of the major certifications out there is the Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) certification, which is offered by the US Small Business Administration (SBA).

Each year, the federal government aims to award at least 5% of federal contract money to WOSBs and limits certain contracts to businesses that are part of the program. This means that getting certified allows you to compete for federal contracts that other companies aren’t eligible for.

To qualify, your company must be a small business. (That definition depends on your industry.) It must also:

  • Be at least 51% owned and controlled by women who are US citizens, and
  • Have women involved in the business who make long-term decisions and manage the daily operations.

You can self-certify through the SBA by answering questions and uploading business documents.

Alternatively, you can go through one of the four third-party organizations that have been approved by the SBA to certify WOSBs (for a fee). They are:

Women’s Business Enterprise Certification

While the WOSB program gives you exposure to federal contracts, the Women’s Business Enterprise certification is a private certification that helps you gain visibility with corporations. For example, one benefit is access to a list of supplier diversity and procurement executives—in other words, leads for people looking to do business with small business owners like you.

The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council is one of the main WBE certifiers. To qualify, your business must be at least 51% owned, controlled, operated, and managed by women who are US citizens or permanent legal residents.

To apply, you have to submit the requested documentation and have a site visit with a WBENC representative. Certification fees vary depending on your business revenue and range from $350 to $1,250.

Once certified, you’ll be able to compete for business opportunities from both corporations and various government agencies.

8(a) Business Development Program

Next up, business certifications for minority business owners.

On the government side, there’s the federal 8(a) program. It’s for businesses owned by “socially and economically disadvantaged” minority groups, which include:

  • African Americans
  • Hispanic Americans
  • Native Americans
  • Alaska Native Corporations
  • Indian Tribes
  • Native Hawaiian Organizations and Community Development Corporations
  • Asian Pacific Americans
  • Subcontinent Asian Americans

Like with women-owned businesses, the government also has a goal of giving at least 5% of all federal contracting dollars to small businesses each year that it classifies as “disadvantaged.” 8(a)-Certified small businesses also get access to the SBA’s 8(a) Mentor-Protégé program, business training, marketing assistance, and other benefits.

To get certified in this federal contracting program, your small business must meet a number of specific criteria, including:

  • Being at least 51% owned by economically and socially disadvantaged U.S. citizens, and  
  • Being owned by someone whose personal net worth is $250,000 or less and whose average adjusted gross income for three years is $250,000 or less.

You can get certified for the 8(a) program via the SBA at no cost.  

HUBZone Program

Every year, this program awards at least 3% of federal contract dollars to HUBZone-certified companies in historically underutilized business zones. These certified companies can compete for the program’s set-aside contracts, reserved for small businesses, including most contracts that are less than $150,000 and some sole-source ones that don’t require a competitive bidding process. In full and open contract competitions, if a HUBZone-certified business bids higher but that bid is no more than 10% of the lowest, most responsible offer, then that HUBZone-certified business will be considered as having a lower bid, as long as the other business with the lowest offer isn’t a small business.

To qualify for this program, your business must fit this criteria when applying for certification:

  • Be a small business according to SBA size standards.
  • Be at least 51% owned and controlled by US citizens, a Community Development Corporation, an agricultural cooperative, an Alaska Native corporation, a Native Hawaiian organization, or an Indian tribe.
  • Have its principal office located in a HUBZone.
  • Have at least 35% of its employees living in a HUBZone.

Minority Business Enterprise Certification

Mirroring the federal 8(a) program, there are also organizations that offer certifications for minority-owned businesses that help you gain business from the private sector.

For example, the National Minority Supplier Development Council offers a Minority Business Enterprise certification that gives you exposure to large corporate buyers. The certification also grants access to educational programs, networking opportunities, business fairs with hundreds of prospective buyers, and more.

To get NMSDC’s MBE certification, your U.S.-based business must:

  • Be at least 51% owned and controlled by minorities for at least six months, and
  • Have minority owners serving as president and/or CEO and involved in daily management of the business. The minority owner(s) also must be a US citizen.

The NMSDC defines “minority” as at least 25% Asian, Black, Hispanic, or Native American.

To get certified, you have to submit documents to the regional affiliate closest to your headquarters, and you will have to do interviews and site visits. Getting certified costs several hundred dollars, depending on the size of your business. 

Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Program

Beyond women-owned and minority-owned business certifications, there are also certifications for other underrepresented groups.

If you’re a veteran with a service-connected disability (as determined by the Department of Veterans Affairs or Department of Defense), your small business might be able to qualify for the Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Program. It’s a federal contracting certification—the federal government’s goal is to give at least 3% of its contracting dollars to SDVOSBs every year.

For your small business to qualify:

  • A service-disabled veteran must hold the highest officer position in the business;
  • The company has to be at least 51% owned and controlled by service-disabled veterans; and
  • At least one or more service-disabled veterans have to be the ones who manage the business’s day-to-day operation and make long-term decisions.

Unlike the previous ones, this program does not have a formal certification process. Instead, you just go to the socio-economic status part of your SAM.gov business profile and self-represent your business as owned by a service-disabled veteran.

LGBT Business Enterprise® Certification

And if your business is LGBT-owned, you can apply for an LGBTBE® certification. This private certification program is offered by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

Once certified, you gain access to business opportunities and contracts from private corporations, plus connections to other LGBT-owned businesses.

To qualify for this certification:

  • At least 51% of your business must be owned, operated, managed, and controlled by LGBT people who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents;
  • The company must be formed and headquartered in the U.S., and
  • The business has to be independent of any non-LGBT business.

Certification costs $400 and includes a site visit.

These are just some of the national business certifications out there. Your state and city may have their own similar certifications, and there are other private-sector certifications as well. Getting these certifications may require some work and expenses upfront, but they can give you access to more business opportunities and contracts that can help your business grow.

Other certifications to help businesses

Another way to help your business thrive is for you or your staff to earn professional certifications. You don’t have to get a master’s degree in your field, though you may find it beneficial to augment your on-the-job experience with certification courses. You can seek out online business certificates or other training courses to supplement work experience and enhance skill sets through educational institutions like business schools, organizations, or reputable online networks, such as LinkedIn.

These professional development programs range from fundamentals in digital marketing, business operations, business management, marketing strategy or supply chain management to upskilling in those functions and others, as well as learning more about specialized areas like social media, business analytics, or data analytics, or customer relationship management (CRM) tools like Salesforce or HubSpot. Some may have eligibility criteria or prerequisites to be accepted into these programs or certification exams at the end of a program, while others may not. There are also online courses for career development to help you chart your career path as a business professional or to help you improve your decision-making or management skills.

For accounting professionals, Gusto even offers a few certifications that provide continuing professional education (CPE) credits:

  • Gusto Payroll Certification for bookkeepers and accountants who are new to running payroll on Gusto’s platform.
    • What’s covered: onboarding and offboarding employees, understanding pay schedules, tracking time, processing payroll, and filing payroll taxes.
  • People Advisory Certification for advising on optimizing operations across the payroll process.
    • What’s covered: pairing financial expertise with advice on people operations, delivering data-backed insights and recommendations, and advising clients through each phase of the employee lifecycle.
  • People Advisory Accelerator—designed for firm leaders and experienced accountants—to market and monetize expert advice.
    • What’s covered: how to design, staff, price, and promote People Advisory service packages with templates to get started.
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