Inside Track Policy, Players and Politics
Karen Mills is Big on Small Business
The stimulus bill thrust the Small Business Administration back into the spotlight and its new administrator—a former manufacturing executive, consultant, and venture capitalist—is determined
to make sure it stays there BY EMILY FLITTER
“It’s not rocket science,” Mills says. “It’s really just taking a
look around and recognizing and appreciating the assets, and
then it’s breaking down silos. It’s making sure that our small
business development centers are hooked into our district of-
fices; that everybody understands the programs.”
t a recent dinner for participants in
Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful
Women program, Barbara Goodstein,
the chief marketing officer at AXA Equitable, found herself seated next to
Small Business Administration chief
Karen Mills, and after nearly three
hours of conversation, Mills offered
Her approach appears to be working.
Goodstein a job. Goodstein turned her down—the pay was ter-
rible—but she recalls being
mighty impressed with her “unas-
suming” dinner companion.
After dropping off during the credit crisis last fall, lend-
ing through the SBA’s flagship 7(a) program has picked up
again. SBA lenders made $1.41 billion worth of new loans in
July, close to the monthly average of $1.5 billion for the 2008
“I just thought she was amazing.” One would never know Mills
managed an increasingly high-profile government agency “
until you probe,” Goodstein says.
Mills, a former venture capitalist and a champion of women
in business, was nominated by
President Obama last winter and
confirmed by the Senate in April.
She has taken the helm at a
pivotal time for the agency. Under the Bush administration, the
SBA, chronically understaffed
and underfunded, appeared to
want to kill some of its own programs, but it assumed a new relevance with the passage of the
stimulus package in February. Its
budget and staff have increased;
it has launched new loan-guar-antee programs and redoubled
its outreach to lenders and businesses across the country.
“No other administrator that I can remember had so much
Valuable addition: The non-partisan Mills brings “credibility and real-world ex-
perience” to the Small Business Administration, says Maine’s governor.
Much of the rebound in SBA
lending, of course, can be attributed to the stimulus itself, as well
other government initiatives
aimed at unclogging the secondary market for small-business
loans. But observers say Mills deserves a chunk of the credit as
well for her getting bankers and
borrowers comfortable with using SBA loan programs again.
Tony Wilkinson, the president
of the National Association of
Lenders, says Mills has been an
intent listener and has made herself more available to banks than
past SBA officials did. “There
were times under the previous
administration where staff was
not allowed to communicate with
us,” he says. “I’ve been pleased
with the way the agency has been
managed this far.”
It is in this brave new world that Mills is making her mark.
She says she is focused on reviving SBA lending and strengthening the agency’s “bone structure”—its network of business-development centers and regional offices devoted to educating lenders and entrepreneurs.
Mills is expecting lending volume to continue to rise, and she intends to seek more funds
to extend stimulus-born changes to SBA lending programs
that have become popular with bankers and borrowers.
Whether she’ll succeed remains to be seen, but observers say
she has built up enough political capital in her short tenure to
at least get lawmakers’ ears.