Federal employees met with small business owners from across the state and country on Wednesday at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff to offer a series of educational networking sessions on how to do business with federal agencies.

Federal employees met with small business owners from across the state and country on Wednesday at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff to offer a series of educational networking sessions on how to do business with federal agencies.

The Rural Small Business Connection event, held at the S.J. Parker 1890 Extension Complex Auditorium, provided entrepreneurial, novice and well-established businesses with the opportunity to make contacts and learn from officials at the United States Department of Agriculture, Department of Finance and Administration and an array of other governmental departments.

Speakers included Butch Calhoun, Arkansas secretary of agriculture; Michelle Warren, program manager for the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, a branch of the USDA; Lance Petteway, director of contract management for the USDA; and more than a dozen others with expert knowledge in the fields of business and agriculture.

The goal of the event, Warren said, was to give small businesses the tools and information needed to become vendors for the USDA or any federal agency.

"We hope everyone here will seize this opportunity and talk to all of the businesses and agencies present," Warren said. "Now people will be able to further their careers, whether it is in farming, housing, construction or whatever their business may be. The knowledge is here; the key is listening and getting ahead."

Warren said the USDA spends $5 billion annually, and 50 percent of their contracts are awarded to small businesses like the ones represented by owners present at Wednesday’s event.

"We are the leader in small business contracting," she said. "Our president and secretary are committed to providing ample opportunities for small businesses who want to work with the federal government."

The USDA isn’t limited to strictly food production and services, and Warren said her department is actively involved in inspection, forestry and information technology.

"Every aspect of our department touches the lives of every American person on a daily basis," she said.

The USDA has offices around the world, she said, with 11 procurement agencies that aid the department in the acquisition of services and goods.

Warren introduced Petteway, who said he’s been working in the contract business for more than 30 years.

He began his lecture posing a challenge, asking a volunteer from the audience to come up and sell their business to him within 30 seconds. A woman who’d just flown in from Philadelphia — small business owners from North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee were present as well — gave her valiant pitch.

As Petteway critiqued her business pitch, he stressed to the audience the importance of having something to offer to the agency, not just boasting accolades.

"I meet small business owners all the time who want to come in and talk about themselves," he said. "But we want them to talk about how their business will help our agency get higher-quality services quicker. It should take you less than 30 seconds to convince me you have an innovative idea."

He said his branch of the USDA, the Food and Nutrition Service, started out awarding only 1 percent of its contracts to small businesses — now 40 percent of his branch’s contracts are signed with small businesses.

Every project that comes across Petteway’s desk is vented through small businesses, he said, and his department has made advancing strides toward giving owners of these businesses opportunities. But in the end, it’s the business that’s responsible for doing the work, he said.

"It’s all about marketing and building relationships," he said. "We look at three specific things on every proposal we see: quality of work, the money you’re charging and your past performance record. Any factor you can add to those that makes your business advantageous will help too."

Petteway said because his department strictly reviews a businesses’ past job performances, owners just starting out may want to become subcontractors, as opposed to attempting to be the prime contractor on projects right off the bat.

"Any project costing more than $150,000 will require a performance evaluation," he said. "And if you don’t meet the standards, your business is going to have problems."

Linda Nelson, the director at the Arkansas district of the Small Business Administration, said starting a small business is like jumping out of an airplane equipped with everything needed to assemble a parachute. At Wednesday’s Rural Small Business Connection, it was the speakers’ goal to give businesses what they need to survive and thrive — before the jump.