From decades-old family businesses to tiny fledgling ventures, there is no small business too young or too old to benefit from the credibility and free publicity of winning a small business award. And with awards available in nearly any category you could possibly imagine, every small business is bound to find at least one or two awards for which they may be suitable.
But who gives these awards, what are they are looking for, and why you should bother? After all, you’re busy running a small business! Can the benefits of winning a small business award possibly be worth the effort involved?
Read on for the answers to these and many other important questions, along with a quick and easy directory of the small business awards worth your time and attention.
First, who exactly are the organizations and entities that offer small business awards? Mostly they are professional, non-profit, or government sponsored organizations, but some for-profit businesses participate in sponsoring awards as well. A few of the most common sponsors include:
A lot of awards are sponsored by societies or organizations that promote growth or visibility for their membership population. These can be organized geographically, by industry or profession, and by demographic. Applying for awards from professional organizations is a great way to get connected within the community of your business peers. And with both organizations that cast a really wide net, like the National Federation of Independent Business, and others that focus on more specific communities, there is definitely something out there for anyone who’s interested in finding resources to grow their business.
If you’ve ever prepared a small business loan application, it might seem like your lender would be the last benevolent supporter to start handing out small business awards. But as it turns out, many lending institutions from the national to the local level use small business awards to spotlight success stories and companies that are making a difference in their communities. There’s a good chance your local chamber of commerce will know some local lenders who offer special recognition.
Large industry leaders are also very invested in recognizing and encouraging growth within their fields. Additionally, many regional and industry publications will present awards to the best of the best. Your local newspaper and magazine is a great place to start when you’re first dipping your toe in the awards waters. For instance, each one of the American City Business Journal’s 43 markets hosts its own local awards.
Qualifying criteria for small business awards can be just as diverse as the issuing organizations. Some will require you to accumulate a specific number of votes online to be considered, while others request a video, application essay, or small press kit for their consideration. Some awards will be free, and others will require an application fee. It’s always wise to look at past winners and nomination guidelines when considering applying for an award—particularly if there’s a fee associated. Make sure that companies of a similar size, age, and industry as yours have won in the past, so you know you have a fighting chance.
No matter what the requirements are for submission, you’ll likely notice a common thread in the quality of serious contenders and winners. Now is the time to ask yourself some questions about your business. What makes you unique? Have you shown incredible growth compared to most companies your size? Is there something special about you or your staff? Are you involved in your community in a special way? Are you part of a demographic that is underrepresented in your industry? Does your business do something that has never been done before? The story behind your business, as well as those special qualities that make you stand out to your customers and stakeholders are the same characteristics that will earn you the distinction of a small business award.
As we list off application requirements and submission materials for one award after another, you may find yourself asking, what exactly is the point of all these small business awards? But don’t give up before you even begin! The credibility (and free publicity!) of winning a small business award is more than worth the hassle of pulling together an application. Here are just a few of the benefits of winning one of these coveted awards.
You already know that potential new customers are searching your company on Google, Yelp, Angie’s List, BBB, Tripadvisor, or any of the myriad of review sites available out there before they even pick up the phone or set foot in your door. Now, imagine the reaction if their search turns up an award next to your name? You have just won yourself priceless legitimacy that even the fanciest website can’t achieve—something that can easily outweigh one Negative Nancy’s less than stellar review.
In addition to review sites, many awards come with the option to display a trophy, certificate, or logo on your website, product, or store front. Your future customers will know that you not only are a legitimate company, but that your brand stands even a cut above the competition.
Of course a great website and active social media presence are vital to representing your brand online, but do they get to people who weren’t already looking for you?
Many awards include great press opportunities as one of the prizes. A mention in a national publication, on your local news, or in a local paper can put your company on the radar of a whole new population. Even if it’s not specifically listed as one of the rewards, there’s no reason you couldn’t seize this opportunity to toot your own horn to your favorite local news source. This is the kind of publicity that can work for even the smallest marketing campaign budget.
Along with grants and cash prizes, there are many less tangible benefits that come from many industry awards. For example, since some awards are issued by industry specific organizations, the winners often receive free memberships. Hotel stays and summit or workshop fees are often covered when an award is issued as part of the events of a convention—meaning you gain a fantastic learning and networking opportunity that may not have been affordable otherwise. The prizes available are as unique as the awards themselves, and as the businesses applying!
Without further ado, let’s dive right into the best resources for finding the best small business awards. We’ll start with some worthwhile general awards, and then highlight a few specific categories for businesses and entrepreneurs who fit particular demographics. Here we go!
The organizations below offer so many small business awards across such a variety of categories, we couldn’t possibly list them all. Find an organization whose mission aligns with your business culture, then peruse their awards listings to find the perfect fit for your business. With so many choices, the right pick is sure to be waiting for you!
Billed as the only business awards program judged by members of the press and industry analysts, the Best in Biz awards are a great opportunity to gain both bragging rights and media attention for your brand. The program offers sixty award categories in five focus areas (Company, Team, Executive, Product, PR & Media). While many of the awards are open to companies of all sizes, each area of focus has a special division dedicated to highlighting small businesses.
Organized by US Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by Sam’s Club, the Dream Big Awards are for companies with fewer than 250 employees and less than $20 million in revenue. Categories include training and motivation, customer service, community involvement, and more. Along with one “Small Business of the Year” award, seven regional finalists and 100 Blue Ribbon winners are also selected, so there are lots of opportunities to be recognized.
Because Ernst & Young’s program is so huge, awards start at the regional level. From these, finalists are advanced to the national awards. E&Y recognizes stand out entrepreneur’s in a dozen different categories at the national level, so your business will definitely find a category that fits. The winners have access to continuing education opportunities, industry advisors, and speaking engagements, as well as the opportunity to join an ongoing community of other exceptional leaders.
Innovation Project Awards: Best Small Business Innovation
Presented by PYMNTS.com, the Innovation Project brings together the pioneering minds of the world of payments and commerce. In the midst of a two day summit packed with panels and discussion groups, 15 awards are presented across a variety of categories. The Best Small Business Innovation award is one to consider in particular if your business is breaking new ground in how payments are sent and received.
National Small Business Awards
For 50 years running the U.S. Small Business Administration has taken time during National Small Business Week to present the National Small Business Awards. In addition to 13 national awards, each of the 74 regional offices also picks award winners in numerous categories. Regional and national categories vary from year to year, so you’ll need to check in with your local office to see what will be the best fit for your company.
“What dream would you be able to achieve if you were to with this championship?” That’s the simple question asked of each one of the thousands of applicants vying for top honors at each year’s SCORE awards. Entrants are asked to submit a short video, or photo and written statement answering the question, then gain 100 votes of public support to become eligible. Two winners are chosen from each state to win $1000 each, then advance to compete nationally for $25,000 grants in one of 11 industry categories.
Hosted by the online publication Small Business Trends, the Small Business influencer Awards honor companies, organizations, vendors, and apps that stand out as influencers within the small business market. While there are many categories, The Growth Story Award will be of particular interest to fast growing companies in any industry who have an exciting story to tell.
The American Business awards leave no stone unturned when it comes to recognizing achievement in U.S. based businesses. These awards are divided into ten categories with dozens of subcategories, covering virtually every industry, for-profit, non-profit, public, private, small, medium, and large companies. Company of the Year awards in 34 industry categories are open to large and small businesses, and all of the innovation and growth awards have a special category for small business recipients.
Admittedly, when considering prestigious awards offering great credibility and recognition, Thrillist may not be the first name that comes to mind—but think again. Winning a spot on one of Thrillist’s many “Best Of” lists won’t get you a gold statue or major prize money, but it will earn a glowing write-up of your business delivered straight to the inbox of interested customers in your area. And if your ultimate goal is publicity for your business, what more could you hope for than that?
Of all the industries out there focused on granting small business awards to their own best and brightest, there may be none quite so coveted or so competitive as the awards offered by the food service industry. Beyond vying for a title as Top Chef, Iron Chef, or any other Food Network star, consider applying for these well-regarded food industry awards.
Don’t let the title fool you—tasty treats alone won’t be enough to win this distinction. The Good Food Awards, hosted by Seedling Projects, has a comprehensive judging process to honor culinary excellence in 13 different categories achieved while focusing on community involvement, maintaining environmentally sustainable practices, and honoring cultural traditions.
Take a look at the ten categories available through the James Beard Foundation awards, widely considered the highest honors in the food industry. The “Best New Restaurant” award is particularly coveted for new establishments, but many categories shine a spotlight on veteran restaurants and chefs through special requirements for number of years in service. No matter the category, the Beard Awards give special attention to restaurants that make a big impact in their communities.
In partnership with American Express, the National Restaurant Association awards $5,000 each to four restaurants per year that demonstrate a tremendous impact on their local communities. Past winners range from national chains to rural family owned single location restaurants. Size doesn’t matter as long as your restaurant makes a local impact!
With the impressive growth of the craft beer market, winning an award from the NABA is a great way to stand out to your hops-loving customers. The NABA issues Gold, Silver, and Bronze winners in more than 80 categories. Plus, winners of these blind taste tests are honored Mountain Brewers Beer Fest, providing great opportunity to connect with brewers and distributors across the country.
This competition’s blind taste test does not care how big or small your operation is. If you’re in the business of distilling spirits and you make a delicious product, you could be the next big winner. Top honors in this competition include a feature in The Tasting Panel Magazine, reaching tens of thousands of industry decision makers. Also—and perhaps even more importantly—you will have access to special labels highlighting your bottle above the sea of competitors on the liquor store shelves.
Is your business committed to environmental sustainability? Check out these small business awards focused on “green” business practices, using products, services, and ingredients that lower impact on the environment. Companies that promote sustainability, take extra steps to keep workers and their community safe, and make environmentally friendly products can gain major credibility from winning any one of the awards below.
A new addition to the BIG Awards this year, the sustainability awards recognize businesses that have made sustainability an integral part of every level of their operations. The BIG awards also offer a number of helpful guides for businesses interested in winning and promoting their awards.
Hosted by Independent We Stand, the Indie Awards focuses on promoting local businesses within their communities. While not specifically green-focused, this award looks to honor small companies stimulating local economies, while practicing socially responsible values. Winners receive a $5,000 prize, as well as a new website, and a free vacation at an independent beach resort in Virginia Beach.
Sponsored by Green America, these awards honor green businesses in an array of categories. Companies of all sizes and industries are invited to submit to win one of the $5,000 prizes. Themes include Organics, Green DIY, Vegan Products, Recycled Products, Green Celebrations, Clean Energy, Worker Empowerment, and more.
Sponsored by VegNews Magazine, winners of this award are selected by polling magazine readers. With more than 1.3 million voters for last year’s awards, this is a great way to reach a broad audience if your business is dedicated to vegan and sustainable practices and products.
Entrepreneurs representing ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities bring unique perspectives and ideas for innovation in business ownership. That’s why it’s so valuable that these organizations encourage minority entrepreneurship by recognizing the unique contributions of minority business owners.
Each year, MVMT 50 recognizes ten people of color who are making strides and creating opportunities for other POC in tech, digital, media, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Winners are honored at the MVMT 50 annual reception at South by Southwest Interactive, providing an excellent opportunity for the honorees to gain press recognition and network within their respective industries.
SBA: Minority-Owned Business Award
While there is no national award issued by the SBA, almost every one of the 74 regional offices honors a Minority Owned Business with some for of annual award. These recognitions focus on companies with 51% or greater minority ownerships for demonstrating business excellence and encouraging fellow minority-owned businesses in their local communities.
The Stevie Awards: Minority Owned Business of the Year
Is your small business majority-owned by an ethnic minority? (Tongue twister!) If so, the Stevie Awards’ new category for minority-owned businesses may be worth your attention. Eligible business owners are encouraged to submit an essay and supporting materials outlining the company’s achievements and community contributions.
With one in every nine U.S. businesses owned by a military veteran, it’s no wonder that a number of organizations seek to recognize these so-called vetrepreneurs through small business awards. Some awards for veteran entrepreneurs even include grants or other funding assistance for starting or growing businesses. Here we have listed three national small business awards for veteran-owned businesses, but veterans should also check in with their state’s department of veterans affairs for more information about awards available for veteran-owned businesses at the local, state, and regional level.
More than anything, NAVOBA values the amazing stories behind veteran owned businesses. Companies large and small are encouraged to self-nominate, or to nominate stand-out organizations for this annual award. In addition the Vetrepreneur of the Year award, NAVOBA also honors a Woman Vetrepreneur of the Year, Hispanic Vetrepreneur of the Year, and Minority Vetrepreneur of the Year.
SBA: Veteran-Owned Business Achievement Award
Just one of the many awards offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration every year, the SBA’s Veteran-Owned Business Achievement Award looks to publicly recognize “job-creators, risk-takers and community-builders” from among the community of U.S. military veterans.
This year, the Stevie Awards for American Businesses has added a new veteran-specific category to their annual achievement based honors. American businesses owned by veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces are encouraged to submit an essay with supporting materials that outline the company’s achievements in the previous year.
Female entrepreneurship is on the rise, and the professional organizations that offer small business awards have taken notice. Whether in an effort to make male dominated industries more accessible, or simply to recognize women who are making great strides, these awards are highly sought after for woman-owned businesses.
The Enterprising Women Foundation is a nonprofit organization fostering entrepreneurship in young women, with a special focus on science, technology, engineering, and math opportunities. By partnering with the Million Women Mentors initiative, this award recognizes fast-growing women-owned businesses who mentor or actively support other women and girls involved in entrepreneurship, and who stand out as leaders in their communities.
Ernst & Young has made a huge investment in recognizing and honoring promising entrepreneurs, and particularly women-owned businesses. This award chooses 12 women who demonstrate ambition, growth, energy, and passion in their fields. Winners participate in a year-long leadership program designed to encourage growth and maximize potential.
In partnership with the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, the NAWBO recognizes female entrepreneurs across several industries for their community involvement. This celebration is an excellent opportunity to network within your local community, as well as gain new exposure for your brand.
Women in business is one of the seven programs offered by The Stevie Awards. The women’s program has a dozen categories for entrepreneurs and executives alike, promoting an array of company types, products, and sizes of business—including businesses with 10 or fewer employees.
As you get serious about promoting your business, you’ll notice that in many cases, applying for these small business awards could easily be its own job! At the very least, establishing yourself as a serious contender will require some extra attention.
Start by narrowing down the awards you want to apply for. If you’re brand new to this, applying for a local or industry specific award is a great way to get your feet wet. Create a checklist of all of the requirements for nominations so that you know in advance what kind of commitment you’re signing up for, and add important submission dates to your business calendar. Many of these awards require nominations to be submitted months in advance of actual award ceremonies, so it’s important to plan ahead!
Have you combed through our directory and still not found that perfect award that feels like your best fit? Don’t worry. There are still more opportunities! While our directory focuses on national and regional awards, your local community may offer additional recognition not featured here. There are plenty of local industry organizations, chambers of commerce, and even local publications that will issue awards to get your name out there to your community!
No matter which direction you take and what the result may be, remember that this is an opportunity for your business to shine—so don’t stress out! Winning a small business award is certainly a perk that can help your business, but whether you win or lose, your bottom line will live on.
Meredith Wood is the founding editor of the Fundera Ledger and a GM at NerdWallet.
Meredith launched the Fundera Ledger in 2014. She has specialized in financial advice for small business owners for almost a decade. Meredith is frequently sought out for her expertise in small business lending and financial management.