Confessions of a "Woman-Owned Business" Owner

How I learned to love quotas.

Well, I finally did it. I bit the bullet and got certified as a WOB: a woman-owned business. It took a roots-up, religious-type conversion -- I'd walked in darkness, then I saw the light. And now that I am a proud -- or do I mean "humble"? -- official victim, my company is entitled to all kinds of preferential treats. Whether ordained by law, as in government contracting, or as an example of aggressive good-guy-ism in the P.R.-conscious private sector, or even as a hopeful prophylaxis against employee or shareholder lawsuits, a passel of lucrative work is reserved for those with the best-crafted claims to prior oppression.

Well-wishers had been after me to go WOB for years, but I refused. Until my revelation, I regarded set-asides as strictly a pat on the head for second-raters. My company, Artkraft Strauss, has been provi-ding signs and outdoor advertising -- and paying taxes -- since 1897. We'd never imagined ourselves qualified for charity. Our firm gets and keeps customers by fulfilling their contracts, not by invoking their pity. Besides, using sex to get work smacks of a profession even older than sign building. The whole endeavor struck me as disreputable.

But then I realized I was a victim of something even more pernicious than discrimination: pride.

My chief of operations, Jimmy, put the matter into perspective. "What are you, nuts?" he asked, reminding me of how many hoops we've jumped through and rings we've kissed over the years to get jobs. "How's this different?" he wanted to know. "If a job is set aside for guys named Jimmy, my name is Jimmy, I'll take it!" Jimmy was right: Business is business.

A bank's name change provided the tipping point. We sign people love bank mergers. Every sign, canopy, directory, ATM, teller cage, and nameplate has to be replaced -- sometimes, in the spirit of the famous Asiatic Fire Drill, overnight, per schedules set forth in the new company's new charter.

This particular changeover involved nearly 1,000 branches in five states. And as I learned when my phone started ringing off the wall with joint-venture pleas from companies I'd never heard of, the taking-over bank had a "utilization rate" of 18 percent. That is, nearly one-fifth of the money spent on construction work would go to WOBs or MBEs (i.e., minority business enterprises; presumably for reasons of euphony, minority-owned businesses generally are called MBEs rather than MOBs). Given how rare such businesses are in the sign trades, at least here in the Northeast, this cake had been baked for me.

Indeed, at the pre-bid conference, the bank's construction consultants were thrilled to see a genuine WOB among the bidders. Apart from the responsibility of physically reconfiguring a thousand banks, they had the head-scratching duty of coming up with the magical 18 percent of oppressed beings.

Their faces fell, however, when they learned I lacked certification. It turns out that it isn't enough to be a WOB; one has to be an officially certified WOB. The contract was to be awarded in only 10 days, and all the paper had to be in place. But state certification can take six to eight months, they told me, because of the volume of applicants and the demanding nature of the process.

Not to worry, I told them.

While Jimmy and his crew worked on the bid, I worked on the red tape. Getting certified as a WOB is something like getting certified insane: It takes time and talent. As I filled out forms and assembled documentation, I wondered how people who are authentically disadvantaged -- or who may not have certified public accountants and English majors on staff -- manage it. Anyone who can produce three years of audited financial statements, five years of income projections, a sheaf of valid "Rated-A" insurance certificates, answers to stacks of multiple-choice and essay questions, a book of "minority utilization re-ports," and a portfolio of supplier and customer references, bank references, and character references probably qualifies for a $100 million line of credit, if not an MBA.

In went the bid, marked "Certification Pending," and into the bowels of the New York State Division of Human Rights went the WOB application.

Undercover Brothers

Not 36 weeks but a mere 36 hours later, the Division of Human Rights called to schedule my interview to complete the process. How did I accomplish this feat? In an example of the old-fashioned "net-working" that affirmative action is supposed to obviate, a confederate at my insurance company called a counterpart whose sister-in-law works in Albany, and our application miraculously migrated from the bottom of the pile to the top. But hey, by now I wanted the job.

The prospect of an investigator's coming in to establish my female bona fides evoked the image of a burly guard out of a 1950s Women's House of Detention movie marching me into the ladies' room and demanding to see the cut of my undergarments. Instead, the investigator turned out to be a grave young man attired in a three-piece suit with Edwardian collar and gold watch fob. He requested my company's original charter and certificate of incorporation; all minutes and bylaws and amendments from inception to date; all stock certificates issued, canceled, and outstanding; and the factory's original certificate of occupancy -- a complete set of century-old documents, much of which I managed to produce by sheer luck. The investigator took careful note of my office décor, plants and curtains evidently witnessing more in my favor than cordovan leather and sports memorabilia would have.

What he was really looking for, he explained, was uncles and brothers hiding under the desk. "You'd be surprised," he told me flintily, "how many people try to put one over on us."

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  • David Simmons||

    All over the world there are concessions for certain groups of people, grants available, help to be found. It's good to see something being done to create opportunities for people who may otherwise hit that glass ceiling. It's a shame they make it so difficult to join though - 8 months, that's a long time to get a certifictae!

  • Mandy Allen||

    It's great to see something being done for women that will benefit them in the long run. Too many times it's a case of 'jobs for the boys'. Grab the advantage while you can.

  • Jeremiah||

    "But WOB isn't just about tangible benefits. It's so much more. I now feel a part of something larger than myself: the great chain of being that tumbles from the well-meaning, through the impractical, to the absurd -- replacing the dismal script of capitalism with a delightfully random set of entitlements and rewards."

    I admire how you embrace sexism with such open arms. Women seem to be pretty good at that, as long as it's in their favor. Men, on the other hand, actually naively fought FOR women's rights.

  • tipuasher||

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