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Owners grapple with women-owned business designation

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What does the woman-owned business label mean in Delaware? Beyond the obvious, women business owners have expressed a complex relationship with the term.

For some, it means greater access to business opportunities for a historically marginalized group. Others see it as a signal to customers and fellow business owners alike that diversity is important — a symbolic marker in a marketplace increasingly sensitive to issues of equality. 

One factor shaping that meaning in Delaware is the state certification program that gives women-owned businesses special status along with minority- and veteran-owned businesses. In theory, the designation gives these businesses preference when it comes to government contracts and other business opportunities, but not every company benefits equally.

“I know some women for whom the certification has really helped, but for me it hasn’t,” said Diane Ferry, owner of Star-Med LLC, a health information management firm based in Wilmington with more than 100 employees and a presence in 15 states. 

“The certification in general does assist women in obtaining new business, I really do believe that, especially when women are working in fields such as construction,” she added.

While surrounding states set annual quotas for procuring and contracting minority- or women-owned firms, Delaware does not. This means the companies best equipped to participate in the competitive bidding process are often the most likely to benefit. 

“Other states offer quite a few opportunities,” Ferry said. “I’ve been offered to go to Pennsylvania for X amount of dollars to open up an office there. I don’t see that so much in Delaware.”

For smaller businesses in particular, networking and connections are cited more often as the reason for business success than any special certification.

“It really hasn’t done too much for me, to tell you the truth,” said Janet Killian, owner of Gemini Janitorial Services in Wilmington. “Of course, with certain contracts, it does help to have that certification. But honestly, it’s all about networking.”

There are 29,833 women-owned businesses in Delaware, according to a recent report commissioned by American Express that looked at U.S. Census Bureau data. Those firms employ a total of 30,277 people, with a mix of larger firms and single-women operations. 

Killian, who started in the business 35 years ago, said networking helped establish her company in the market when there were fewer women-owned businesses around to set an example. 

“Just getting to where I am was a struggle,” she recalled “Back then you had this old-boys club, and it was difficult to break through that.”

Killian added that today the women-owned label is most beneficial as a means of expressing solidarity with other women business owners, who may need varying levels of support depending on their size and industry. 

“I’ll tell you one thing. Women support women. That’s the benefit. We all support each other,” she said. “Say I need an electrician or a plumber, I’ll reach out to women’s groups that I’m a part of before I Google anything.”

Jennifer McKenzie, co-owner of Assurance Media, a telecommunications contractor in New Castle County, said the label sends up a flag for discerning customers who might be interested in patronizing a firm with diverse ownership.

“It’s helpful because it shows to the community our embrace of diversity,” said McKenzie, who founded the company with her husband. 

She added that touting your women-owned status is also an inspiration and example for younger women considering a career in business. “From that perspective, as business leaders we show other aspiring young women that they can actually own a business of their own.”

Melanie Ross Levin, director of Delaware’s Office of Women’s Advancement and Advocacy, echoes this sentiment. She called the label an “added bonus” rather than an essential factor in purchasing decisions for both government agencies and consumers. 

“I find that it’s a value for customers who want to support women and are eager to support women. From a customer perspective, I always find it helpful to have that identifier,” she said.

Whatever its business value, few in Delaware believe the label should be retired anytime soon. 

“I do think it’s worth celebrating,” Ferry said. “When you picture an entrepreneur, rarely do you picture a woman. Until things are on a more equal level, it’s worth it.” 

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