Tips From The Staff/Board

How to Pick the Right Certificate for Your Business

There are so many different supplier diversity certificates out there – WBE, WOSB, DBE, SDB etc. – and each client seems to ask for a different one. We never want you to apply for a certificate you don’t need, or even worse, send in an RFP just to be told you don’t have their preferred certificate. Let’s break it down in an easy to understand guide so you can apply for the right certificate with confidence! 

Before You Start: Identify Your Clients

The best indicator of which certificate you should choose lies in your client base. Do you primarily focus on commercial contracts with private corporations? Government contracting? Federal, state, or city government? Transportation? Retail? The more you can identify WHO your clients are, the better we can guide you to the right certification.

And yes, many people hold more than one certificate for their different client streams!

We’ve organized the below into two helpful lists: certificates by client, and clients by certificate.


Recommended Certificate(s) by Client Base: Which Certificate Should I Get?

Disclaimer: Before we jump in, it’s important to know that these are general rules of thumb, as each procurement office has the discretion as to which certificates they will accept. For example, while the WOSB is only intended for contracting with federal agencies, a corporate procurement officer that would typically only accept WBENC may choose to allow you to submit the WOSB if you do not have WBENC. This is always on a case by case basis, so when in doubt, ask the procurement office directly!

You’ll want to look for a nationally accepted certificate.

The WBENC WBE certificate is the most widely accepted certificate in the corporate world, and opens up access to supplier diversity programs with hundreds of corporations around the country. You apply through one of 14 regional offices, and the certificate is national and valid in all 14 regions.

There are five national certifiers to choose from, representing the five different diversity categories generally considered part of the supplier diversity community. Many business owners have one or more of the national certificates (if they are eligible). The five national certifiers are: WBENC (women-owned), NMSDC (minority-owned), NaVOBA (veteran-owned), Disability:In (disability-owned), and NGLCC (LGBTBE-owned).

Examples of the types of companies that accept the 5 national certifiers: utility companies, retail box stores, universities, grocery stores, hospital systems, tech companies, automotive, financial and insurance, etc.

Plus many states and cities will accept one of the national certificates as a fast track for their own registration, making it a great choice if you’re pursuing both corporations and local government projects. See more info below in state/city contracting.

The WOSB (women owned small business) is the certificate accepted by US federal agencies. Similarly, the EDWOSB (economically disadvantaged women owned small business) provides additional opportunities. Both certificates are intended for businesses in specifically male-dominated industries, and allow access to the SBA’s federal contracting program.

Important: Keep in mind that while the WOSB is a federal certificate, it DOES NOT trickle down to the states. It is only useful for government contracting at the federal level.

You can apply one of two ways: directly to the SBA; OR add the WOSB onto your WBENC application for no additional fee. To save time, we always recommend the 2-for-1 route and applying for WBENC and WOSB together through one of WBENC’s 14 regional offices (see above). WBENC does not offer EDWOSB as it is a more invasive application process into your personal finances.

Other federal certificates include: HUBZone (for under utilized business district zip codes) and the 8(a) program (for economically disadvantaged business owners). Again, these are solely for federal contracting, and do not trickle down to states, cities, or corporations.

Each individual state, city and municipality sets their own laws and regulations around whether they maintain an internal certification program and/or accept an outside certificate as a fast track.

Important: Similarly to the federal WOSB certificate above, state certificates often DO NOT trickle down to cities, municipalities, other states, or even the corporations working within that particular state. State certificates are specifically for doing business with that state’s department of general services.

However, some states are becoming more accessible to small business owners, and will accept a national certificate like WBENC as a fast track, making it easier for you to maintain one certificate that you can use in both the public and private spheres. Examples include: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, City of Philadelphia, State of Delaware, and others. Thus you can use the national WBENC certificate to easily get certified in both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania to do city and state contracting.

Keep in mind that every city and state is different, so it is imperative that you do your research into whether the state has a supplier diversity certificate program, and how useful it will be to you. Many business owners waste precious time registering with dozens of different states that they will never end up actually pursuing for bidding or contracting, or fail to realize that the state certificate they obtained doesn’t trickle down to the city or corporation that they’re really pursuing.

How to apply: You can often google a particular state along with “supplier diversity” to learn more about how to apply to their specific certificate program, or whether they accept a national certificate like WBENC.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) maintains a specific certificate program called the DBE (diverse business enterprise). Each state DoT issues their own local DBE application process. There is no fast track to DBE certification as they do not accept any outside certificates.

State and federal DOTs only accept the DBE certificate. Vice versa, the DBE certificate will only be useful for pursuing transportation contracting, and generally MAY NOT be useful for or transferrable to other corporations, federal agencies, or state/city government contracts (but it can’t hurt to ask).

New! As of May 2024, the federal DBE program will be changing to make it easier for small businesses to work across state lines by allowing any state’s DBE certification to be transferrable to other states’ DOTs. We’re keeping an eye on how the updates will affect applicants.

Pennsylvania-based business can apply for DBE here.


Clients by Certificate: Where Can I Use Each Certificate?

WBENC WBE (women’s business enterprise)

  • • Private sector, commercial services, and retail products. Hundreds of corporations around the country in various industries including utility companies, retail box stores, universities, grocery stores, hospital systems, tech companies, automotive, hotel chains, financial and insurance, etc., plus many, many more companies not included in the linked list above.
  • • Some state or city contracting. States like PA, DE and cities like Philadelphia accept the WBENC certificate as a fast track to get registered with their own local contracting certificates.

NMSDC MBE (minority business enterprise)

  • • Another national certificate like WBENC. See above.

NaVOBA (veteran-owned)

  • • Another national certificate like WBENC. See above.

Disability:In (disability-owned)

  • • Another national certificate like WBENC. See above.

NGLCC (LGBTBE-owned)

  • • Another national certificate like WBENC. See above.

WOSB (women owned small business)

  • • US federal agencies. Useful for the SBA’s federal contracting program. Does not trickle down to state contracting, and will generally not be useful in the private sector. You can add on the WOSB to your WBENC application to save time and get two certificates for one application, or you can apply separately with the SBA.

EDWOSB (economically disadvantaged WOSB)

  • • US federal agencies. Useful for the SBA’s federal contracting program. Does not trickle down to state contracting, and will generally not be useful in the private sector. Unlike WOSB, you CANNOT add the EDWOSB onto your WBENC certificate given the more invasive application process into personal financials. You can apply directly with the SBA. Learn more about the difference between WOSB and EDWOSB.

DBE (diverse business enterprise)

  • • Transportation contracting at both federal and state level with the DOT, airports, port authorities and other agencies in transportation. Generally is not transferrable or useful for non-transportation contracting with states or cities, or commercial services in the private corporate sector.
  • • Each state maintains their own DBE application. As of May 2024, states will be mandated to allow reciprocity for the DBE, making it easier for small businesses to work across state lines by applying only with their home state.
  • • The PAUCP DBE is Pennsylvania’s application program.
  • • Delaware DelDOT DBE
  • • New Jersey NJDOT DBE
  • • Each state usually maintains their own WBE, MBE and/or SDB certificate. It is important to note that these certificates are generally for doing business specifically and only with that state or city’s department of general services, as well as agencies/departments that fall under the state/city administration umbrella.
  • • This means that these certificates will often not be transferrable across state lines, will not be useful for transportation contracting, and will not be useful in the private sector for working with corporations within that particular state or city.
  • • Some states/cities will accept a national certifier like WBENC as a fast track to their own state/city certificates.
  • • Below you’ll find more examples of local state and/or city certificates, as well as their usefulness:

Delaware DSB (diverse small business)

  • • Intended for state contracting with Delaware Department of State, Office of Supplier Diversity (OSD). Useful for state projects, or any agency/department that falls under the umbrella of state administration. Generally not transferrable across state lines or useful in the private sector or transportation sector.
  • • Accepts WBENC as a fast track for DSB certification

Pennsylvania SDB (small diverse business)

  • • Intended for state contracting with Pennsylvania Department of General Services (DGS), Bureau of Diversity, Inclusion & Small Business Opportunities (BDISBO). Useful for state projects, or any agency/department that falls under the umbrella of state administration. Generally not transferrable across state lines or useful in the private sector or transportation sector.
  • • Accepts WBENC as a fast track for SDB certification

New Jersey SBE (small business enterprise) and MWBE (minority and/or women business enterprise)

  • • New Jersey maintains their MWBE (minority and/or women business enterprise) registry for informational purposes, and does not prioritize women or minority owned businesses for state contracting projects. You may find it useful for some local NJ municipalities, who look at the MWBE registry. Generally will not be useful in the private sector, transportation, or across state lines.
  • • New Jersey DOES prioritize small businesses in general for state construction projects through the SBE program. Keep in mind this is only for state contracting, and will generally not be useful in the private sector or across state lines.

Philadelphia M/W/DSBE (minority, woman or disabled-owned business enterprise)

  • • Useful for contracting both with the city of Philadelphia Office of Economic Opportunity as well as some agencies and departments in the Philadelphia area. Philadelphia aims to award 35% of contracts to WMDSBEs.
  • • Accepts WBENC as a fast track for M/W/DSBE certification.
  • • Many small business centers, non-profits, or procurement offices will offer their own in-house supplier diversity certificates. It’s important to do your research into whether these certificates will be useful to you and your clients in the long run.
  • • A local WBE certificate issued by a small business center in your city may be useful if your business’ service area is small, and you are only planning to work with local clients. Ensure you check with your clients to confirm they accept that local certificate.
  • • But keep in mind that if you choose to expand your service area, clients outside that city/region may not recognize that local certificate program, and may ask for a national certificate.
  • • We get it. Going through the application process of any of the above certifications can be rigorous. You’ll need to submit tax returns, stock certificates, operating agreements, and often go through a site visit or interview. Some business owners are tempted to pursue a seemingly quick and easy self-certification through a third-party private (and usually for-profit) certificate provider.
  • • But there’s a reason that these are falling out of favor with procurement departments across the country. That quick and easy process usually lacks the due diligence of checking ownership and actually verifying that the business is run by the woman owner, opening up the door to people who really shouldn’t be self-certifying, and to businesses who may have been denied by one of the certificates listed above.
  • • It’s for this reason that the federal government actually eliminated self-certification for their WOSB program in 2020, in favor of a more thorough process of vetting and validating their applicants.
  • • So while self-certification may seem the fastest route, it may end up costing you clients in the future as more and more corporations, states, and cities seek to validate the small businesses they work with.

The Bottom Line

1. Start by identifying your client base – are you pursuing state, city, federal contracts, private sector, transportation, or a combination?

2. Many business owners maintain more than one certificate if they do work in different public and private sectors.

3. Before applying for any certificate, do your research into which clients typically accept that certificate, and ask your target clients if they accept that specific one.

4. Keep in mind that state and/or city certificates or registrations are only useful for doing business with that state or city’s department of general services and any agencies that fall under that state’s umbrella. It’s not a good use of your time to register with a bunch of states that you won’t be pursuing directly for government contracts.

5. When looking at the commercial services or wholesale/retail products in the corporate private sector, a national certifier like WBENC, NMSDC, NGLCC, NaVOBA, or Disability:In is generally the way to go.

6. Applications submitted to any of the certification programs referenced in this article are reviewed separately. They are their own individual programs. Approval or denial from one certificate does not guarantee approval or denial from another.

7. When in doubt, ask! Do an internet search for your target client’s procurement department and/or inquire directly with a procurement officer about which certificate(s) they prefer.

This article was last updated on 4/24/2024.