Her career spans more than 22 years in information technology, both as a member of the United States Army and as a government contractor supporting the Department of Defense (DoD) and Intelligence Community (IC).
Bellegarde began SoundWay in 2011 at a point in time when she was ready to take the next step in her career and assume a new challenge. The company is an SBA Certified
Service Disabled Veteran Owned (SDVOSB) and Economically Disadvantaged Woman Owned (EDWOSB) Small Business. Bellegarde recently took a leadership role by collaborating with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) for its Women-Owned Small Business program to become a full-fledged, sole-source/direct-awards category with and SBA oversight.
WashingtonExec spoke with Bellegarde about the humble beginnings of SoundWay and her active role in the advocacy for women-owned small businesses in the current federal contracting environment.
WashingtonExec: What made you want to break out on your own and start your own company, SoundWay Consulting?
Diane Bellegarde: I started SoundWay for two reasons.
First, I started SoundWay because I was up for the challenge of starting a small business; it was the right time and next step. I had great people supporting me, strong client relationships, and terrific colleagues to help kick-off the business.
Second, the government officially made the woman-owned small business/economically disadvantaged woman-owned small business (WOSB/EDWOSB) category a formal socioeconomic set aside program in 2011. It made sense to assume that the government would start placing more contract awards into the WOSB/EDWOSB set-aside category.
Beginning 2011, the WOSB/EDWOSB program became an official set-aside program that counted as part of the Government’s small-business participation goals. Other small business set-aside programs include the 8(a), Historically Underutilized Small Business (HUBZone), and Service Disabled Veteran Owned programs (SDVOSB). These three programs allow for sole-source-award capabilities. For example, there is a $4 million contract ceiling for sole source [service-contract] awards for 8(a), small disadvantaged businesses. You can also have SDVOSB sole source contracts under certain conditions; there is no ceiling. And HUB zones – again you can win sole source contracts.
Yet when the WOSB/EDWOSB program first came out it had a $4 million contract ceiling, period. You could not put anything on it worth more than $4 million. It dawned on me that the restriction meant WOSB/EDWOSB’s could not participate in most strategic initiatives because strategic initiatives typically cost more than $4 million. I then thought, “are women-owned small businesses viewed as companies not capable of, or worthy of, strategic initiatives within the federal contracting community?”
I started advocating for women-owned small business a little over a year ago. I noticed that there were not a lot of opportunities being released on the Federal Business Opportunities (FBO) website for WOSB/EDWOSBs. I talked to several contracting officers and I kept hearing the same thing; they had not heard much about the new women-owned small business program’s benefits. The contracting officers were all curious, “does the WOSB/EDWOSB program allow for sole-source awards?”
About once a month I now run a FBO query to identify the total number of small business set asides that have been released. Typically, WOSB/EDWOSB solicitations account for less than 2% of the FBO-released solicitations/notices. I ran a query on November 12th, 2013 – FBO only lets you search the past 21 days when querying all small business solicitations – here are the numbers:
Total Small Business Solicitations/Notices Released: 2,687; Total Awarded: 387
Total 8(a) Solicitations/Notices Released: 81 (3%); Total Awarded: 5 (1.2%)
Total SDVOSB Solicitations/Notices Released: 41 (2%); Total Awarded: 15 (3.8%)
Total HUBZone Solicitations/Notices Released: 49 (2%); Total Awarded: 9 (2.3%)
Total WOSB/SDVOSB Solicitations/Notices Released: 9 (0.3%); Total Awarded: 1 (0.26%)
In 2011, the government even gave itself a bad grade in the WOSB/EDWOSB category; women-owned small businesses aren’t getting a fair shake.
“I don’t care who benefits from the Women Owned Small Business program, just as long as the program, as a socio-economic set aside program, is brought in parity to other socioeconomic set aside programs. It just makes sense.”
WashingtonExec: Who have you partnered with?
Diane Bellegarde: I’ve reached out to the US Women’s Chamber of Commerce, Women Impacting Public Policy and the National Women’s Business Council. I have also reached out directly to every Senator through a direct mailer and received feedback from two out of 100 Senators; very sad. Now we are making our way to Congress. We’ve met with a few Congressional offices and I’m happy to say that Representative Connolly (D, VA) has co-sponsored HR2452 based on our meeting with his office and presenting the facts.
This past summer I teamed up with a few other executives to form the Women’s Executive Council; part of the Council’s core mission is to bring attention to and support to bills currently being vetted by Congress, by requesting parody for the WOSB/EDWOSB; to give it the same sole-source award capability as other programs. We want to see the bills brought to a vote as soon as possible; within the next few months would be great!
“I would hope that ten years from now the WOSB/EDWOSB program is running as smoothly and as favorably as the 8(a) program. I just hope it doesn’t take that long. We definitely need more Representatives to sign up and sponsor the Bill HR 2452 and put the bill to vote.”
WashingtonExec: It seems like there are three top Congressional offices working towards this issue; Gerry Connelly (VA-11), Nydia Velázquez (NY-12) and Frank Wolf (VA-10). Is that correct?
Diane Bellegarde: In 2012, Senator Olympia Snowe put out a legislative Bill – S 2172 – to have the $4 million ceiling removed, allow for sole source award capability, and to have the program put under SBA governance. That Bill has yet to move forward and Senator Snowe has since retired. The good thing is that the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 did lift the $4 million ceiling; this went into effect in August 2013.
In June of 2013, Representative Velazquez (D,NY) and four other Representatives put forth a very similar bill – HR 2452 – but a bill with one-plus-four [sponsors]is not going to get anywhere. Our mission now is to meet with anyone in Congress who will meet with us and get them to become a co-sponsor of the bill. We’re slowly but surely chipping away starting with my Representative, Gerry Connelly, and he has agreed to co-sponsor the bill! We are reaching out to Frank Wolf and we’ve been visited with Representative Jim Moran’s office (VA-8), and we continue to reach out to others.
“WOSBs should receive the same opportunities equal to their set-aside counterparts. I graduated in 1982 and even back then girls were told was ‘make sure you take typing and shorthand because you need to be able to get a job as a secretary if you don’t get married or if you don’t become a nuclear physicist.’ We have to break through those molds.”
WashingtonExec: What makes this different than lobbying?
Diane Bellegarde: I am not receiving any type of compensation for the work I’m doing. This is all volunteer. I have staff members to help me make phone calls. It is more of an altruistic endeavor versus a lobbying effort. I don’t care who benefits from the Women Owned Small Business program, just as long as the program, as a socio-economic set aside program, is brought in parity to other socioeconomic set aside programs. It just makes sense.
WashingtonExec: Why should the federal contracting community care about this?
Diane Bellegarde: There are plenty of reasons. Women make up a majority of the single-parent household leaders in this country. The rest of the world looks to the US as a model to follow. WOSBs should receive the same opportunities equal to their set-aside counterparts. I graduated in 1982 and even back then girls were told was ‘make sure you take typing and shorthand because you need to be able to get a job as a secretary if you don’t get married or if you don’t become a nuclear physicist.’ We have to break through those molds. We’ve broken through to a certain extent, but there are others, it is still a ‘good old boy network’. Also, The State of Women Owned Businesses, a study commissioned by American Express found that “…Since the depth of the U.S. recession, the only businesses that have provided a net increase in employment are large, publicly traded corporations… and privately held majority women-owned firms. In all other privately held firms, employment has declined over the 2007–2013 period.” Of course, this is for all firms, not just Government contracting. So, the non-Government economy recognizes that women are growing, but the Government’s contracting numbers don’t support WOSB/EDWOSB’s growing within Government contracting.
WashingtonExec: How do the other small business programs view this issue? How has the greater small business community reacted to your cause?
Diane Bellegarde: Many that I’ve spoken with support it. The only groups that are rumored to possibly oppose it are some 8(a)’s and the ANCs, but I don’t know this for a fact. If it’s true, that is sad – those programs were in the same boat as WOSB “X” number of years ago and the world rallied, and here they are with great programs. We are just looking for that same fair benefit.
WashingtonExec: Is your goal to Women-Owned Small Business category fall under the 23% contract goal of all small business set asides?
Diane Bellegarde: It is already part of the 23% is a goal, some organizations impose higher goals for themselves. Of that 23% it’s usually broken down to 5% 8(a), 5% SDVOSB, 5% women-owned, HUB zone is 1%, and then the rest is just total small business. Generally speaking, the Government hasn’t met its WOSB/EDWOSB numbers, and WOSB/EDWOSB sole-source award capability would really help. Another trend that I’ve noticed is that solicitations and notices that are coming out as WOSB/EDWOSB follow the unfortunate trend of putting low-dollar-value and low-margin-work against programming; housekeeping, janitorial services, hospital kiosk, etc. This should not be the end goal for Women Owned Small Business set-asides.
WashingtonExec: When we first talked you said that to get to this point in launching a formal Women-Owned Small Business Program it took ten years. Where do you think the program will be ten years from now?
Diane Bellegarde: I would hope that ten years from now the WOSB/EDWOSB program is running as smoothly and as favorably as the 8(a) program. I just hope it doesn’t take that long. We definitely need more Representatives to sign up and sponsor the Bill HR 2452 and put the bill to vote.
AFCEA NOVA’s small business committee is hoping to put a program together to train contracting officers that would include information on the benefit of the WOSB/EDWOSB program, how to use the program, where they need to look, etc… We’ve just got to get them more energized about it. They have a very hard job. There are too few contracting officers and there’s a lot of work that goes through their offices. They go with what they know, what works, what’s easy. We want to make sure that the WOSB/EDWOSB program is something the officers are comfortable with. AFCEA usually trains, educates or reaches out to the workforce community and this time they’d like to reach out to the Government and offer up some assistance.