by Lisa Sisley on March 3, 2014

I'm starting to understand why everybody got all excited when Manhattan hit the magical 50,000-population mark a few years back.

Now that this city is officially a statistical metropolitan area (SMA), and the region has a metropolitan planning organization (MPO), we are "eligible for lots of federal dollars ($$$)," as people often explain it, with a grin and a touch of greed in their hearts. A lot of those dollars will come from transportation projects.

And as it happens, some of those dollars are reserved for businesses just like New Boston.

If you're not familiar with the process of bidding for jobs funded with federal money (and I'm still learning, for sure), you need to know that there are often "set-asides," or requirements that the contractor be, or partner with, a business owned by someone in a group that hasn't historically been on a level playing field when it comes to winning the bidding-for-business game. They're called "disadvantaged business enterprises," or DBEs. Veterans, minorities, folks whose businesses are in economically stressed neighborhoods. Woman-owned small businesses (WOSBs) fall into this category.

New Boston is 100%-woman owned. Kristin Brighton, Susan Religa and I started it in 2006 after several years of collaborating as separate business entities. In 2008 we won Kansas Woman-Owned Business of the Year for professional services firms, and we won Kansas Emerging Business of the Year as well. Still proud of those.

There's a lengthy and documentation-heavy process to be a State of Kansas-certified, woman-owned business. Keeps the fraudulent out of the fray, I guess. It takes a lot of time to jump through all the hoops and frankly, after 2008, we decided we did our business more good by spending our time on other things. Being an official woman-owned small business didn't help us when bidding on state contracts or private business. There had to be federal dollars in the mix.

Now there are.

We have suddenly become the popular girls at the dance. Even though we had let our official certification lapse, we've recently been recruited to partner on bids for federally funded projects that require DBE participation. So we revved up the certification process, and thanks to some lovely and very business-friendly people at Kansas Department of Commerce (Rhonda Harris, I'm looking at you) and Kansas Department of Transportation, we're good to go again.

Yes, we're officially certified as "disadvantaged" once more. And while we will certainly keep renewing the certification for as long as it gives our business an edge, it sort of bothers me, too.

The three owners of this business are white, middle-class, college-educated Kansans. We're smart enough for everyday purposes, and have been blessed with even smarter colleagues. By dumb luck, we set up shop in one of the most prosperous small cities in America. We have access to a remarkable talent pool of employees, thanks to K-State and Fort Riley. The business community in this state is amazingly energetic. And without moving anywhere, our location suddenly became awesome when the Flint Hills Discovery Center moved to the neighborhood and the streets got straightened out.

"Disadvantaged"? Us?

On the other hand....

We know that some people — men and women — who, all other things being equal, will automatically hire a man instead of a woman. Period. No one, in eight years, has said this to our faces. Of course. But we know it happens.

The thing about bias like that is, you can almost never prove it. You're not in the room when somebody subtly steers the decision away from your company to another. You're not a witness when a look, a shrug, a subtly negative comment happens. You're not there when the decision maker is choosing between someone who joined the same fraternity and someone who crosses her legs differently.

Sometimes, when I feel they lack historical appreciation for how much things have improved, I subject unfortunate young women to this rant: In my lifetime, it was perfectly legal to fire a woman for getting pregnant. To not hire a woman just because she had kids. To require a woman to get a man to co-sign a loan for her. Mind-boggling now. It used to be par for the course.

So...we'll take the DBE designation. Small business owners don't leave money — or opportunities — on the table. We might squirm a little, but when we win the bid, we will work our kiesters off and do a great job. And be the first choice next time. Not because we're women.

Because we're good.