Ask an Expert: Q&A with Kimberly Ball on How USAID Engages with U.S. Small Businesses
Happy Small Business Week! We are excited to share some tips for U.S. small businesses that are interested in partnering with USAID.
This Q&A was derived from the Twitter Spaces event on April 26, 2022, with Kimberly Ball, Director of USAID’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization.
Q: Please tell us a bit about your role in USAID’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, or OSDBU.
A: I am the director of USAID’s OSDBU, and I worked in OSDBU for 12 years before leaving it for two. So I'm very happy to be back. It's a bit like coming home. I will say, though, that I feel like my time away from OSDBU really helped me have a better understanding about how some of the other offices in the Agency work, which I think informs my process in this role. So I am here for the small business community and definitely here to help you.
Q: What role do small businesses play in USAID’s development assistance efforts around the world?
A: The small business community is vital to the work that we do here at USAID. Small businesses are agile and creative, and they're able to adapt and move quickly in ways that large businesses may not necessarily always be able to do.
Q: What is this Administration’s approach to engaging U.S. small businesses in USAID’s work?
A: This Administration has made a tremendous effort to make sure that small businesses are engaged. The President issued an executive order on advancing racial diversity and equity in procurements, which speaks specifically to certain categories of small business, like small and disadvantaged businesses that are minority-owned, and like our service-disabled small business owners. Having that support from USAID’s leadership and from this Administration, that level of engagement, and that level of understanding is so vital.
Q: What is the role of OSDBU within the federal contracting process in general?
A: There is an OSDBU office in most federal agencies—certainly in the 24 largest federal agencies: the Department of Defense, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, etc. All of these agencies have an OSDBU. And it is our job to work in collaboration with our procurement colleagues—whether that's the actual contracting officers or the program and technical folks who need the work done—to make sure that small businesses are given a fair opportunity to compete for that work. The U.S. government is the largest buyer of goods and services, so we want to make sure that small businesses are able to participate, and that they're able to receive some of those contract dollars and provide their goods and services to the U.S. government. So that is the role of my office and of the OSDBU at every federal agency.
Some of the things that we do are advocating for small businesses internally and trying to identify what might be good for a small business set-aside, meaning that it's only small businesses competing against other small businesses. We look for opportunities to encourage our large business partners to subcontract with small businesses. That's the advocacy piece. We also try to share those stories about what small businesses are doing well. We want to be able to share that excitement around what small businesses can do. On the flip side, we also are out in the community, trying to make sure that we know who the small businesses are that support the kind of work that USAID does, whether it’s on the administrative side or the development work we do.
Q: What is the most exciting thing about your job and OSDBU overall?
A: I've got to say one of the most exciting parts of the job is when you hit that synergy—when you meet that small business and you say, “I know exactly how you're going to fit in at USAID”—and you can push for that. That's one of my favorite parts of the job. And the other part, obviously, is when those small businesses actually get the awards. When they're successful, and then when they're doing the work, we can point to the impact and say: a small business did that. It's showing that our small business partners are valuable, and they contribute, and they're successful, and they're passionate, and they're smart, and they're engaged—and all those wonderful things that make it easier for you to get a contract.
Q: Do you have events coming up for the small business community?
A: Yes, we are going to have our annual small business conference in the fall, in October, so stay tuned for that. That is an opportunity for small businesses to learn about the Agency. We typically do a number of different webinars on various topics of importance to folks who want to work with USAID.
Coming up in the late spring or early summer, we are going to have a matchmaking event so that some of our small business partners can get to know some of our large business partners and, hopefully, make connections. And then we'll have some other very focused events, such as an event that's focused on service-disabled-veteran-owned small businesses. All of our events are free and open to the public, although we do a little bit of vetting to make sure that the attendees who are coming are a good fit. You can find information on upcoming events on our website.
Q: What should U.S. small businesses do to get started engaging with USAID?
A: If you're brand new to federal procurement, then your first step needs to be making sure that you're signed up with SAM, which is the System for Award Management. You also need to go to your Small Business Administration district office. They have a lot of tools to offer assistance, and they have business development programs, for example the 8(a) program if you have a minority-owned small business. Finally, you want to make sure that you know what your firm's North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes are, because it just makes it easier for you to communicate.
If you are a business that’s a little bit further along, then come and take a look at our website. You need to look at what we do at USAID to make sure you understand how you might fit in. By that, I mean: Are you offering goods and services that we can use here in Washington? Or are you interested in working in one of the countries or in multiple countries where we work? And then what does that actually look like? In addition, USAID has arguably the best Business Forecast in government. It is updated on a regular basis, almost daily. It lists what we're looking for, and what we're buying. It's also a great way to find out who some of the organizations might be who are holding prime awards, so that you can approach them separately for subcontracting opportunities. The forecast has a specific Small Business Set-Aside filter to help locate relevant opportunities.
If you are interested in working in a particular country, it's useful to take a look at what that USAID Mission has published in its Country Development Cooperation Strategy, or CDCS, to find out if the programs they are supporting, aligns with the work that you're trying to do. It's one of those things that helps you figure out whether or not you might be a match for that country and for that work.
In any event, once you've done all of that, once you've done your homework, then come and talk to us! My office has an email inbox: email@example.com. You can send an email to that inbox, and we will direct you to the right small business specialist in my office who might be able to help you. If you want to look a little bit closer, we do have a list of our staff and what they do. But I'm very much going to ask that you do a little bit of homework before you come to us so that you can get a good sense of where you might fit. And certainly the staff will help you with that. It's just easier if you understand the language a little bit. There's also a video on the acronyms that we use as an Agency that will help you.
Q: What other tips do you have for working with OSDBU or the Agency in general?
A: I've said this a few times already, but the first thing is just do your homework. USAID is a challenging organization to understand, and it's a little bit different than other agencies. I would take a look at our website, and see what we're doing, to see if what you're doing aligns. Visit WorkwithUSAID.org and use the Pre-Engagement Assessment, a tool that helps organizations assess whether or not they're ready to work with USAID, and look at the Partner Directory to see who we work with and who you might partner with.
The other thing that I would say is to be active and engaged. There are a number of organizations that work around USAID. I've mentioned the Small Business Association for International Companies (SBAIC), which is a trade organization. There’s the Professional Services Council / Council of International Development Companies (CIDC). You know, there's strength in numbers. Those folks always know what's going on with the Agency, and I think it is helpful to get engaged. If you are new, again, I would also recommend that you look at who some of our partners are and look for subcontracting opportunities. Many of these large business organizations hold outreach events as well, so that they can find partners.
Finally, look to see what separates you from others. The Agency is using a lot of OASIS and other General Services Administration (GSA) schedules these days. If you are on a GSA schedule, I think that's a tremendous selling point. Are you a woman-owned small business? Are you a minority-owned business? Are you in a HUBZone? Are you a service-disabled veteran? Are you somebody in the diaspora interested in working in your country of origin? Do you have connections in that country, and do you have the ability to help others in-country build capacity? There are so many things that you can do that are helpful in terms of your ability to work with us as a small business partner.
Are you a small business that is interested in working with USAID? Take the WorkwithUSAID.org Pre-Engagement Assessment to determine your readiness!