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Stimulus, Schtimulus--Businesses Have Better Things to Worry About

army-knife.jpgOver the years, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has gained a reputation for being inadequate to its purported task of small business advocacy. But change, perhaps, is in the air.

Yesterday, the Senate committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship unanimously confirmed the nomination of Karen Mills--entrepreneur, venture capitalist, heiress to the Tootsie Roll fortune--to head the ailing agency, which (if the recent funding thrown at it is any indication) the Obama administration expects will play a key role in helping Main Street ride out the recession.

Hopes are high.

In a panel discussion hosted by American Express OPEN on Wednesday, experts said new leadership in the SBA could open the door to improved education and training programs, better use of technology, more outreach efforts and greater accountability. Panelist Ken Yancey, CEO of SCORE, an association of small business counselors, said he expected a bit of a lag before things took off--"but once it begins, it will be healthy."

However, all the panelists alluded to an obstacle that stands in the way: the effort required for business owners to understand how to navigate the new policies and programs.

"You need to do your homework. You have to understand policies," said Barbara Kasoff, co-founder of Women Impacting Public Policy. But, as Sharon Brown, founder of New Jersey-based environmental engineering firm EOSS, Inc., pointed out, it would help if the learning curve wasn't quite so steep.

That makes sense. There's onus on business owners to prepare and go after new opportunities, but to ensure the greatest effectiveness, it's equally important for the SBA to make sure the message (and in this case, the money) reaches its intended audience. The Obama administration has tried for transparency on the stimulus, and the SBA should be ready to do similar public outreach for its programs. A lot could hinge on making it easier for business owners to take advantage of the benefits offered.

Regardless, I take heart in a conversation I had earlier this week with Theo Goldin, COO of beverage company Hint, who simultaneously proved the fact that more outreach is necessary and made me consider the possibility that in the end, it won't matter. After all, entrepreneurs have better things to do than worry about how stimulus efforts will (or won't) benefit them; they're busy running businesses.

"We've been focusing all of our energies and fundamentals on growing our business, and not on how the government can help," Goldin said. "Can we use a little help from the government? Sure, why not? That sounds great. But we're not sitting there waiting for it."

Hint, having recently secured funding from a private investor, is "doing all right," and Goldin said that if the company needed loans, they would look to the SBA regardless of the stimulus. "I think better loan terms would be awesome, but we would do the same thing we were going to do anyway.

"I hope that doesn't come across as brash," Goldin added, "but I believe in America and in Americans. We're a country made up of people who either directly or through their ancestors came from some of the worst conditions in the world, who overcame incredible diversity and who built this country largely through entrepreneurship. And these are the times when people like that shine."

As for predictions, he has just one: "America's not closing up shop, and as long as you believe in the future, then you want to build, and you have to get the biggest piece of that future as you can. That's what we're doing, and we're starting to get phone calls from investors who have the same kind of an attitude. I know as the conditions improve, there will be more and more people who are interested in building the next set of great companies."

Amen. That's exactly the attitude we need--and thankfully, survey says, that's what we've got.

Share your thoughts about Karen Mills' appointment on Entrepreneur Connect.

Jennifer Wang is a staff writer at Entrepreneur magazine in Southern California.
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