Certifications can give you access to more opportunities.
There are a range of business certifications available for small businesses, and certification often comes along with perks like access to contracts and networking opportunities. — Getty Images/damircudic

For entrepreneurs, finding the right resources, networks, and contracts can make a world of difference when it comes to finding success. Getting your business certified can help open the door to these and countless other opportunities in both the private and public sectors.

Certifications are available for small businesses owned by women, minorities, LGBTQ+ members, veterans, and economically disadvantaged entrepreneurs. Additionally, businesses that meet certain environmental standards can apply for specific building certifications.

Here’s an overview of different types of business certifications and how to begin the application process if you’re eligible.

Who offers business certifications?

The following organizations offer many of the business certifications currently available to diverse small business owners:

  • U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA): The SBA is a government agency that provides support and opportunities to entrepreneurs and small businesses. This organization offers certification programs like the Woman Owned Small Business (WOSB) Program, HUBZone Program, and 8(a) Business Development Program, which make businesses eligible for certain government contracts.
  • Minority-centered organizations: Some minority-centered organizations, such as the National Minority Supplier Development Council, offer certifications that help minority entrepreneurs gain new business from the private sector.
  • Other government and industry organizations: There are also certifications that are provided by state and city governments. The contracts they award are smaller and typically only within their jurisdiction.

[Read more: 7 SBA Programs Every Small Business Should Know About]

Why become a certified business?

Business certifications come with various perks and resources that can help your company stand out among competitors and scale your business faster.

  • Access to contracts: The federal government, as well as certain private-sector corporations, set aside contracts to be awarded to businesses with certain verified certifications. These contracts are only given to businesses with these certifications in order to ensure equal opportunity.
  • Ability to form joint ventures: Once you become certified, you often can join other businesses within your certification in order to compete for certain contracts.
  • Additional management and technical assistance: Many of these certification programs offer management and technical assistance to help their businesses grow and succeed.

Types of business certifications

While there is a wide range of business certifications and certifying bodies available to small business owners, here are some of the most well-known types:

8(a) Small business certification

The 8(a) small business certification was designed to help create equal opportunities for small business owners who are “socially or economically disadvantaged.” The federal government awards at least 5% of contracting dollars for 8(a) businesses and allows them to compete for set aside and sole source contracts.

To be eligible for the 8(a) program, your small business must be at least 51% owned and controlled by U.S. citizens who are economically and socially disadvantaged. Additionally, the owners must manage day-to-day operations, make long-term decisions, and have a personal net worth that is less than $750,000 and a three-year average adjusted gross income of $350,000 or less.

If you meet these certifications, you can apply to become an 8(a) business by registering on the SBA’s website. Once you complete the application, you will receive a letter informing you of your approval or rejection. If you were approved, your certification lasts for a maximum of nine years. However, you’ll be subject to annual reviews in order to maintain your standing in the program.

HUBZone business certification

The Historically Underutilized Business Zone (HUBZone) is a program with the goal of growing businesses in historically underutilized areas by awarding them at least 3% of federal contract dollars each year.

To qualify for the HUBZone program, your small business must be located in a HUBZone, have at least 30% of its employees living in a HUBZone, and be 51% owned and controlled by U.S. citizens, a Community Development Corporation, an agricultural cooperative, a Native Hawaiian organization or an Indian tribe.

The SBA continually works to make the HUBZone program work better for applicants and recently improved decision-making turnaround time, streamlined applications, and expanded early engagement.

You can apply for your HUBZone business certification on the SBA’s website. While there is no limitation to the length of how long a business can have a HUBZone certification, it will have to recertify for the program once a year. Additionally, an examination of your business will be required every three years.

Women-owned business certifications

If your business is majority-owned and operated by one or more women, you may be eligible for the SBA’s Women-Owned Small Business program.

This program was created to aid female business owners by awarding them contracts within specific industries where women are underrepresented. A minimum of 5% of contracting dollars are given to woman-owned businesses each year by the federal government.

There are two types of woman-owned business certifications offered by the National Women’s Business Council: woman-owned small business (WOSB) and economically disadvantaged woman-owned small business (EDWOSB).

To qualify as a WOSB, your small business must be for-profit and 51% owned and operated by women who are U.S. citizens and work within the business full-time.

If you’re looking to qualify as an EDWOSB, your business must meet all of the above requirements for a WOSB, as well as the economic requirements of an 8(a) certified business. If you already have an 8(a) certification, you can also apply for an EDWOSB certification as well. You can apply for both woman-owned business certifications through the SBA’s website.

[Read more: How to Get Certified as a Woman-Owned Business]

Minority-owned business certification

The National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC) is an organization that is committed to integrating Minority Business Enterprises (MBE) equally in the public and private sectors. This organization provides MBE certification for minority-owned businesses.

The NMSDC network consists of over 12,000 certified MBEs that are connected to over 1,400 large corporate members. Not only is it a significant certification within the NMSDC, but being MBE-certified helps in government circles to gain federal contracts as well.

To qualify for the MBE certification, your small business must be 51% minority-owned and operated, and the owners must be involved in daily management. The NMSDC defines a minority as “an individual who is at least 25% Asian, Black, Hispanic or Native American.” This is established and proven through a combination of screenings, interviews, and site visits.

If your business meets this criteria, you can apply to be an MBE through the NMSDC’s website. Once you’ve submitted all the required documents and paid the application fee, you’ll get an email and letter if you’ve been approved. If your application was not approved, you may submit a letter of appeal.

[Read more: How to Get Certified as a Minority-Owned Business]

B corp certification

A B corporation is a for-profit business that is driven by a social mission. These companies use their profits as a means for positive impact on their employees, communities, and the environment. They are certified by the SBA and are overseen by the B Lab, a governing body that ensures B corps are meeting their standards for impact.

Becoming a B corp requires your company to have a positive social impact. For a business to certify as a B corp, its owners must complete the B Impact Assessment (BIA) and meet the legal requirements. The BIA evaluates the applying company and its impact on its employees, consumers, community, and the environment. Once you complete the BIA, you’ll pay a fee. Once approved, your certification will last for three years, after which you’ll be subject to a reassessment to determine if your company still meets the criteria.

Certified B corporations, of which there are over 4,000 across 150+ industries, are legally required to consider the effects of their actions on the surrounding public and use their business as a force of positive change. Many famous industry-leading companies, including Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and Grove Collaborative, make up the thousands of B corps.

[Read more: A Complete Guide to Starting a B Corp]

Veteran-owned business certification

As a veteran of the United States Armed Forces, there are two different certifications you can apply for if you’re starting a business. The Vets First Verification Program is a federal government program that grants certification for veteran-owned small businesses (VOSBs) and service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses (SDVOSBs). With these certifications, you’re granted competition for certain contracts that are set aside for veterans and veterans who became disabled while in the act of service.

To qualify for these certifications, a small business must be at least 51% owned by one or more veterans who manage the business daily. To apply for SDVOSB, the owner also must have a service-connected disability.

For business certification in the private sector, the National Veteran Owned Business Association’s Certified Veteran’s Business Enterprise (VBE) is a program that offers certifications as a marketing tool for businesses that want to work with VBEs. Like with its federal government counterpart, your small business must be at least 51% owned by one or more service-disabled veterans in order to qualify.

[Read more: A Complete Guide to Starting a Veteran-Owned Business]

Business certifications come with various perks and resources that can help your company stand out among competitors and scale your business faster.

LGBT business certification

The National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) created a certification program to help entrepreneurs in the LGBTQ+ community have greater access to contracting opportunities. The Certified LGBT Business Enterprise (LGBTBE) certification gives businesses an opportunity to network and mentor with other LGBTBEs, provides access to scholarships, and opens businesses up to special discounts from LGBTQ+-owned and allied partners.

To apply, your small business must be 51% owned, operated, managed, and controlled by a person or persons who identify as part of the LGBT community, operating in the U.S., and independent from any non-LGBTQ+ business enterprises. You also must pay an application fee and are subject to a site visit evaluation. The certification lasts for two years once it is granted.

[Read more: How to Become a Certified LGBT Business]

Small disadvantaged business certification

The Small Disadvantaged Business (SDB) Certification has been around since 2008 when the SBA introduced it so businesses could self-represent as small disadvantaged businesses for purposes of federal prime contracts and subcontracts. In 2021, the Biden-Harris Administration announced an increased emphasis on SDBs for designated federal contract procurement.

The criteria for self-representing as an SDB include that the company should be 51% owned and controlled by one or more disadvantaged individuals, the disadvantaged individual(s) must be either socially or economically disadvantaged, and the company must be defined as small according to the SBA’s size standards for each business’s respective industry.

To officially self-represent as an SDB, business owners should navigate to the System for Award Management and register their business as such. Unlike other certifications, businesses do not have to submit an application to the SBA for small disadvantaged business status. This certification, as it is self-represented, does not expire — unless the business no longer fulfills the requirements.

If a business self-represents as an SDB but hasn’t received any other certifications, it’s possible that the business meets the requirements for the following unique small business certifications, including:

  • The SBA's 8(a) Business Development Program.
  • The SBA's HUBZone Program.
  • The Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program.
  • The Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Concern Procurement Program.

While there’s no guarantee a business may meet all requirements for each, there is a good chance it may fulfill all requirements for at least one additional certification, particularly the 8(a) Business Development Program.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification

Brick-and-mortar businesses looking to go green can pursue LEED certification for their buildings. According to the U.S. Green Business Council (USGBC), the goal of LEED is to reduce the environmental impact of businesses and build sustainable cycles for healthier communities. LEED offers certification for building design and construction; interior design and construction; building operations and maintenance; neighborhood development; homes; and cities.

LEED certification is granted on a project basis, rather than by business. Each submitted project earns points by meeting standards in five performance categories: energy, water, transportation, waste, and human experience. The project then goes through a verification and review process, after which it receives one of four LEED certification levels: Certified (40-49 points), Silver (50-59 points), Gold (60-79 points), or Platinum (80+ points). Specific policies, procedures, and pricing for each LEED certification can be found on the USGBC website.

Maintaining a LEED certification is an ongoing process. Every three years, applicants must provide 12 months of data and earn a minimum of 40 points across the above five performance categories. If approved, the project will receive a renewed LEED certification.

In addition to getting LEED certified for building projects, organizations can also join as members of USGBC, LEED’s backing entity. Membership benefits include discounts on LEED registration and certification.

All of the above certification programs were designed to give underrepresented and disadvantaged entrepreneurs a better chance of business success. If your business is eligible for any of them, it’s wise to look into the application process and start accessing the resources and opportunities available to you.

How to become a certified business

To certify your business, you must first determine which certification(s) your company is eligible to receive. For example, a small disadvantaged business may also meet the requirements for a veteran-owned business, which means it can apply for both certifications. The SBA Size Standards Tool is available for business owners who want to confirm eligibility for small business certification or an SBA assistance program.

If you are only looking to certify as a small business or a small disadvantaged business, you do not need to complete a formal certification process and can self-certify when registering on SAM.gov. This registration is also required for those who wish to pursue small business set-aside opportunities from the federal government.

[Read more: Start. Run. Grow. Certifying Your Business]

If you seek additional certifications, you must complete separate applications for each. To save yourself some time, complete multiple applications in the same timeframe. Although specific application requirements vary, there is overlap in the information you’ll need to provide, including your company’s financials and licensure. Using software and project management tools can help keep you organized, especially if you’re applying for several certifications at once.

Turnaround time for a completed application can vary by agency or organization. For example, the SBA is required to make decisions within 90 days (whenever practicable), while B-corp certification can take six to eight months. If your business does not meet the requirements or the application is otherwise incomplete, you may need to submit additional documentation upon request, which can extend the wait time.

Even after you’ve been certified, it isn’t a one-time process; you will need to apply for recertification on an ongoing basis — typically every two to five years, depending on the specific certification or issuing entity. You will need to maintain — and prove — certain eligibility standards throughout each recertification interval.

Though the process of certifying your business (and maintaining certification) may seem lengthy, many entrepreneurs find the benefits of certification well worth the time spent. Access to industry events, government contracts, networking opportunities, and more can help your small business reach its fullest potential.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

CO—is committed to helping you start, run and grow your small business. Learn more about the benefits of small business membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, here.

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