When Erica Courtney counsels women business owners about contracting with the federal government, she has a multitude of perspectives to draw upon.
During her 14 years of service in the Army, she was a buyer of goods and services from contractors. She knows first hand what federal procurement personnel are looking for when reviewing applications. And although not much has changed in the last two decades in terms of rules and regulations for contracting, Courtney has a few tricks of the trade to share now that she seeks contracts as an entrepreneur.
“It is certainly not an easy market to crack, but the bottom line is you are dealing with people, not with the government itself,” she said. “You have to be able in 30 seconds to give a solid pitch for your business that makes sense to them. What makes you different? Why should I care? And provide a total solution and best value because they want everything fulfilled.”
Courtney served on a panel at ChallengeHER in Silver Spring, Maryland in July 2017. ChallengeHER consists of all-day workshops—organized by Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP), American Express and the Small Business Administration—that are designed to be a one-stop-shop for connecting women-owned businesses with organizations and other resources to successfully pursue federal contracts.
At ChallengeHER events, Courtney zeroes in on women veterans in the room to make sure they understand how the skills they learned in the service can translate to competitiveness in government contracting.
“In the military, we have to essentially compete in a man’s world and it’s hard for women to transition to what it means to be a woman in the business world,” she said. “Sometimes they lose the confidence they had in the service. But I got into the corporate world after my service and later started my own businesses, so I know how to bridge the cultural military-civilian divide and enjoy helping others ‘fast track’ their careers through a little bit of tough love and peer-peer mentorship.”
Courtney joined WIPP four years ago after attending one of the organization’s meetings in Washington, D.C. She realized she had a lot to share with other women business leaders, and a lot to learn from WIPP because it stays up to date on best practices for contracting. She was highly impressed by the caliber of other WIPP leaders, and therefore has continued her involvement.
“It’s good for women to hear perspectives from people who are knuckle-grinding because they’re new to contracting, as well as women who have been doing it for 20 years,” she said. “Most of the WIPP ChallengeHer events consist of start-ups so they appreciate when the women on the panel share our joys and pitfalls of small business ownership.”
During her service as an aviator, paratrooper and senior logistical and contracting officer in the Army, she was responsible for deploying 2,400 personnel, $750 million in equipment and $200 million budgets.
“I had to procure everything from barbecues to armament,” she said. “I became pretty familiar with vendors and knew as a buyer pretty quickly if contractors knew how to do business with the government. Understanding the language is crucial.”
After leaving active duty, Courtney earned her Masters of Business Administration degree and entered the corporate environment. So many business owners started seeking her advice about how to successfully pursue government contracting that she opened her own consulting firm, which she sold after five years.
She now serves in the Army Reserves working on international women’s initiatives and is focused on running her newest business, 2020Vet, a firm with offices in Virginia and California that offers logistics optimization performing everything from acquisition, inventory management, distribution and reverse logistics. The second focus is on forensic engineering capturing data and presenting it in a clear, concise way through aviation, scientific and engineering subject matter experts and technologies. Founded in 2014, the company helps commercial and government organizations make better informed decisions in a faster, cheaper and safer way than traditional inspection, surveying or delivery means.
Courtney said she has multi-year commitments with Pacific Gas & Electric, as well as First Five California, an education agency. Now she is looking to expand into federal contracting, which is familiar territory that she helps other veterans and women business owners navigate.
“I tell them, ‘You have to build a team, demonstrate that you have the best value and know how to market yourself,’” Courtney said of the women she meets at ChallengeHER events. “You have to have an effective capability statement. My business is registered as a woman-owned and service disability veteran owned. But I tell women business owners, ‘Don’t ever lead off with that. Tell them what you can do and leave a positive impression.’”