If there has ever been a time for Puerto Rico’s small businesses to take their shot at becoming a provider of goods and services to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, that time is now.
In an exclusive interview with News is my Business, Soraya Correa, chief procurement officer of the mammoth agency — and who is of Puerto Rican origins — said that to succeed, would-be prospects need to do their homework.
“So the first thing I like to tell businesses especially if they’ve never done business with the federal government is get familiar with the agency you want to come visit,” she said.
The agency, which has four components, represents many areas of opportunity for small and medium companies, especially in the field of information technology. That said, prospective vendors need to identify their areas of interest and target their conversations in that direction, said Correa, who was on the island last week for the Puerto Rico Innovation Cluster’s CIO & IT Leadership Conference.
“They need to come in and try to understand what that organization is, what are the kind of things they buy, and all of this is information that is publicly available,” she said. “They also have to bring to the table the benefit they will provide the Department.”
“There are hundreds of companies, thousands of companies, that want to do business with the Department and what’s going to bring you in the door is when you tell me that you have, is it something that I can buy? Something that solves a problem,” she said.
One of the DHS-sponsored initiatives that calls for small business participation is the Silicon Valley Innovation Program, for which the agency conducts a nationwide search.
“We’re actually looking for who has that technology out there that might help us solve a particular problem — an idea that we may not have even thought of,” Correa said.
The program is split into four phases of funding through which participating companies could earn up to $800,000 over a 24-month period.
Each phase lasts between three and six months, during which participants must: conduct a proof-of-concept demo; demo a pilot-ready prototype; pilot-test the prototype in operation; and, test in various operational scenarios. Ultimately, participating companies will get market validation, amplify their reach, benefit from mentorship and network.
Businesses need to get certified
Correa also stressed the importance of businesses getting their certifications, for which they can work closely with the U.S. Small Business Administration.
“So whether they’re women-owned, disabled, veterans, small businesses in a Hub Zone, companies should make sure that they learn how that benefits them and get the proper certifications,” she said.
On an annual basis, DHS spends about $25 billion in purchases of goods and services, of which $18 billion goes out in contracts. Of that latter amount, about 35% are contracts allocated to small businesses, she said, noting the agency does business with 11,700 companies “located in every state and every territory of the United States.”
“Of those 11,700 companies, about 7,800 are small businesses. In Fiscal Years 2018 and 2017, about 1,500 of those small businesses were winning their first DHS contract. So that gives you an idea that we’re actually out there looking for companies because new companies bring new ideas,” she said.
Although there is no clear data about how many companies based in Puerto Rico are doing business with DHS or any of its umbrella agencies, Correa said the island represents a “gold mine” for the agency when it comes to potential goods and services providers.
Antonio Sosa-Pascual, co-chairman of the Puerto Rico IT Cluster, said the process “is a two-way street, because the government needs to be more open, and the companies need to step it up, and part of that calls for education.”
“I’m going to do everything that I can so that in two or three years, we have a couple of companies doing business with DHS,” he added.
Aside from stirring up interest from small businesses, Correa said DHS is also trying to recruit graduating college students to participate in the agency’s three-year paid internship program, known as the Acquisition Professionals Career Program. Upon completion, the participants are offered a job at one of the DHS components, she said.