If you're a woman gearing up to start a small business, or hoping to expand the one you already have, the government can help.

"A lot of business owners start out by having a good idea, not really having a thorough business plan and not knowing how to write a business plan. (They) put it on their credit cards and get themselves into debt," says Chancy Lyford, acting deputy assistant administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration's Office of Women Business Ownership.

The government office gives more than $11 million in grants every year to the 113 women's business centers around the country, designed entirely to help women who own small businesses. These centers help women write a business plan, find a lender and acquire government contracts.

"They are in every state and territory except for six, and they are primarily located in socio- and economically disadvantaged areas of cities or towns," Lyford adds.

One of their main goals is to help business owners get funding through one of the many private lenders who offer 7(a) loans. These specific loans are geared towards small businesses and guaranteed in part by the Small Business Administration. Borrowers must apply both through the administration and then through the private lender.

Once a business gets off the ground, the government might be able to become a client as well. The Federal Government strives to give 5% of its contracts every year to women-owned businesses.

In 2006 and 2007, the government was shy of that goal, giving only 3.4% of its contracts to women. But that small percentage had dollar values of $11.6 billion in 2006 to $13 billion in 2007.

"A business must be 51% owned by a woman or a group of women to be considered woman-owned," Lyford says.

The government can also designate a business as an 8(a) or Small Disadvantaged Business, which makes it eligible to receive aid from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Minority Business Development Agency. To get this label, a business owner must prove that she is both sociologically and economically disadvantaged.

"We offer technical and managerial assistance; we help people with their business plans and financial plans; and we lead them to opportunities with investors," says the agency's national director, Ronald Langston.

The agency also has a business-to-business program that links 8(a) designated businesses together, or sometimes with majority businesses. "In the gulf coast (after Katrina) for example, we linked businesses with 8(a) firms so they could go after contracts together," says Langston.

The Center for Women's Business Research announced in December that women own 20% of firms with revenues exceeding $1 million in the United States. Innovative women willing to take advantage of these government programs can help make that number grow even higher.