By Brittany Henneberry, thomasnet.com
Choosing the best minority-owned business certification for your company depends on what your potential customers need. It is also important to leverage your certificate correctly to ensure you stand out from competitors without making the wrong first impression.
For this guide on choosing, applying for, and using your certification, we sat down with Ade Solaru, the CEO of SupplierGATEWAY who is also African American. SupplierGATEWAY is a disruptive supply chain software management company that openly publishes its prices for its instantly deployable software. Solaru’s team has experience with several minority-owned certifications. Apartfrom the certifications SupplierGATEWAY has, they have also created their own minority-owned certification program to enable more companies to get past the barrier of certification. Solaru sat down with us to share his experience in pursuing, obtaining, and effectively using minority-owned certifications.
What Is a Black-owned Business?
A Black-owned business is a company at least 51% owned, operated, and controlled by one or more Black people. Because of this, it’s possible to have owners of other races, but they can only have a minority control in the company. Additional requirements to qualify for this certification will depend on which organization is granting the certification. Minority-Owned Certification is awarded to companies that prove they meet the criteria, and Black ownership is one of the subgroups that falls under the umbrella of “Minority-Owned”.
While some organizations offer certifications for businesses owned by African Americans specifically, many more certifications are open to members of multiple historically disadvantaged groups that Black business owners can take advantage of. We’ll go into more detail on the types of certification available further on.
Why Get a Minority Owned Business Certification?
According to Solaru, getting certified is important for your business because it makes your business more attractive to current and potential clients. “As one gentleman said to me, ‘I was Black when I woke up this morning, I’m Black now, and I’ll probably be Black when I go to sleep tonight.’ “ Solaru says. “I don’t necessarily need a certification to prove that.”
Many companies want suppliers with minority-owned certifications because they have programs and initiatives tied to diversity and inclusion objectives. More specifically, they have goals on how much they want to spend with diverse suppliers. To ensure they have inclusion in their supply chains, they need to verify that your company is diverse or minority-owned. Being certified reassures current and potential clients that your company is genuinely a diverse-owned company.
Diversity and Inclusion initiatives have been gaining popularity, especially over the past few years. For example, Amazon has started showcasing minority-owned companies that meet consumers’ demand for more inclusive shopping. This demand for diversity has also increased in the B2B space. SupplierGATEWAY has seen strong demand for diverse and minority-owned certified businesses in its supply chain work, which is part of the reason it created the Enhanced Digital CertificationTM.* Clients have asked how to scale to amounts of 500,000, five million, or 20 million diverse suppliers on a global scale, to increase their diversity, equity, and inclusion worldwide.
Apart from the public sector, a certification enables your business to sell to the government. The government at all levels sets aside specific percentages of its spending for various minority-owned suppliers. Since it is one of the largest consumers in the economy, it uses taxpayer money to be inclusive and encourage the economic growth of traditionally disadvantaged businesses.
However, knowing what certification is, and is not, is essential. Many conflate the benefits of membership of certifying organizations with the certification itself. While you should try to take advantage of the resources these organizations offer if you’re eligible, tangible benefits won’t come to you automatically. According to Solaru, “Certification means certification. To grow your business, you should do yourself a favor and access resources, capital, and advice.”
That being said, in the current climate, an African American-owned business certification can be an excellent tool to differentiate your company when presented as a bonus to the great work your company already does. “There are lots of options [for certification],” Solaru says. “Pursue one, don’t let it be a barrier to you getting in the game.”
Getting a Minority-Owned Business Certification
Getting certified as a Minority Owned business “need not be the Spanish Inquisition,” Solaru says. The process is designed to provide assurance that your company is what you say it is. There is a wide range of certifications to choose from. Your choice should be based on what kind of certification your clients and potential clients accept as proof of minority ownership.
Solaru’s best advice? Have all of your documents ready when you apply so you can easily prove you own and manage the company. Only make statements you’re prepared to back up. No matter which certification you apply for, all of them need proof that you are what you say you are.
Types of Minority-Owned Company Certifications
The types of Minority-owned company certifications range from federal government self-certifications to more expensive trade organization certifications to local certifications for small businesses. SupplierGATEWAY itself maintains multiple certifications since its target customers- midsize and large companies- can have different preferences. However, since not all companies have the time and money to do that, Solaru advises companies to be strategic about which they apply to and maintain. Options include:
Self-certification from the federal government. Self-certifying as a small disadvantaged business is free and relatively simple- you’re just making an attestation to the government that this is what your company is. This takes anywhere from days to a few weeks. However, some clients will want a certification with stricter checks, so it’s important to know what your customers are looking for before applying.
8(a) designation from the Federal Small Business Administration. For companies interested in doing business with the federal government, 8(a) status allows small disadvantaged companies to bid for federal purchases specifically set aside for them, which make up 5% of their total purchases. The U.S. Department of Transportation has a similar status for small and disadvantaged businesses which can be applied to for free.
The Minority Business Enterprise certification from NMSDC. This is one of the more traditional certifications, and for these types of certifications it can take three months when you first apply. Recertifications, however, will only take a couple of weeks. Traditional certifications can range from $350 to $1500 per year, depending on the size of your company, but most of these organizations follow similar pricing structures.
SupplierGATEWAY’s Enhanced Digital Certification (EDC). The EDC was created to address demand for diverse suppliers and help a wide range of business owners get certified. The certification takes about 15 minutes to complete and costs $25 for one year or $70 for three. It also covers multiple statuses, so if you’re a Black LGBTQ+ woman who runs a business, all of those statuses are covered by one certification.
The Black-owned business certification from US Black Chambers Inc. This certification takes about a half hour to complete and an additional site visit, with certification being granted after about a month. It’s also free.
State and local certifications are also widespread. States including Idaho, New York, Georgia, and Wisconsin all have minority-owned business certifications, as well as local governments like the cities of Los Angeles, Columbus, and New Orleans. You can check your own state and county government to see if there is a certification in your area.
Other certifications are available if you’re a member of other disadvantaged groups (such as a veteran, woman, disabled, or LGBTQ+). You can check out our guide on the importance of supplier diversity for a list of organizations that offer various certifications. As mentioned before, you can also certify your company as Black-owned and any other groups you may be a part of simultaneously with SupplierGATEWAY’s EDC.
Leveraging Your Certification
The most important thing to remember when leveraging your certification is that being certified will not get you business by itself. You still need to sell what the customer is looking for, and to deliver on your product.
“I am a leader of a technology company and I am African American,” Solaru says. “I am always careful not to say I’m an African American-owned business because my software doesn’t care what I look like. Customers don’t care, either, but are pleasantly surprised to discover SupplierGATEWAY is majority African American-owned and certified. That’s a checkmark for them.”
That being said, your certificate can still be a crucial point of differentiation you can use to get potential customers’ attention. Demand for minority-owned suppliers has risen significantly, and your certification adds additional value to what you offer. You need to figure out how to maximize the leverage being certified gives you, but you also need to know when and how to talk about it— it’s essential to be able to read the room. void leading with being certified; you may make a bad impression.
Being “unexpectedly” African American means “people might listen to you for just a couple of seconds more. So make whatever you say impactful and make sure the message is out there.” Solaru adds, “If being African American gives you an extra millisecond to capture people’s attention, use it, and then prove to potential clients that it was silly for them to not have considered you in the first place. People operate based on their own interests. If you’re good at what you do, you’re going to grow and prosper.”
Solaru has seen implicit bias happen as a business owner, but he also focuses on getting the message out about what his company offers. “I have to double and triple down on excellence, because the bar is so high. I’m going to leap higher than whatever bar anyone puts in front of me. And that’s why we have to be technically excellent. We have to be fearless in what we do.” At the end of the day, Solaru adds, “setbacks aside, don’t allow those things to influence your strategy, your goals, your dreams, and your aspirations. Sometimes, being Black can really work for you and sometimes it works against you, but it doesn’t change the core mission that you have.” The past “doesn’t limit what I can achieve. History is in the past, but my goals and aspirations are forward-looking.”