Karen Mills on the SBA: Successor Needs to Get the Word Out

The outgoing chief of the Small Business Administration talks about her four years at the helm of the agency and what her successor needs to do.

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By Catherine Clifford • Feb 22, 2013

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The biggest challenge for the next U.S. Small Business Administration chief will be getting the word out about what the agency has to offer, says outgoing SBA leader Karen Mills.

Mills met with reporters today to talk about her stint at the agency. She has spent the past four years working to elevate its status and helping small businesses get access to capital during the Great Recession. It will be the job of her successor to get the word out about what the agency has to offer, she says.

"We have a bone structure, a network out there for small businesses," Mills says. "We need to be more ubiquitous." In particular, small businesses in underserved communities need to be made aware that the agency is there to help them. Mills says she does not know who her successor will be or when that person will be named.

Related: Karen Mills to Leave the SBA

Mills came into the role four years ago, when the economy was in the throes of the Great Recession. In the fall of 2008, just as President Barack Obama was coming into office for his first term, the credit markets were nearly frozen. Small businesses faced an especially hard time getting access to capital as banks hoarded cash and tightened lending. SBA lending "had been cut in half, it was in free fall," Mills says.

With the help of several popular stimulus measures initially passed as part of the Recovery Act of 2009 and then extended by Congress repeatedly, the SBA helped jump start lending to small businesses. The agency supported more than $30 billion in lending to more than 60,000 small businesses in its 2011 fiscal year.

Also to help small businesses gain access to capital, Mills was instrumental in getting the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, known as the JOBS Act, passed in April. It is a compendium of six pieces of legislation, the most popular of which aims to democratize crowdfunding by allowing companies to raise money by selling equity to nonaccredited investors online and lifting a ban on public solicitation.

The time and political energy spent on the JOBS Act is a source of criticism of Mills's tenure at the SBA. The legislation disproportionately supports technology startups, says Ami Kassar, the CEO of MultiFunding, a small-business lending consulting firm in Broad Axe, Pa. Silicon Valley already has a robust network of financing options, he says. "I hope that a primary focus over the next four years will be Main Street, and not necessarily Silicon Valley because it is Main Street small-business owners and entrepreneurs who so desperately need the help," Kassar says.

Related: What's Ahead for the SBA in 2013

In response, Mills says that crowdfunding does have the potential to help businesses outside of Silicon Valley. "We know that people want to support their local restaurant or coffee shop or Main Street small business," she says. The crowdfunding industry is complaining that the JOBS Act is taking too long to be implemented. Mills met with Securities and Exchange Commission regulators just last week. Not only is the Commission dealing with the transition of its leader, but also, it is looking to be very careful to write the rules for crowdfunding in a way that appropriately protect investors, says Mills.

About a year ago, President Barack Obama elevated the head of the SBA to a cabinet-level position. The largely symbolic move was part of a broader proposal to streamline business-related agencies and decrease bureaucracy. If Congress granted Obama the authority necessary to enact the restructuring, the SBA would be consolidated with other commerce and trade agencies.

While there has been no action moving the proposal forward, Mills says that whatever happens, Obama has been emphatic that small business will be represented. "Small business clearly has a seat at the table," Mills says.

Related: Google Hangout with SBA Chief Karen Mills (Video)

Mills declined to disclose what she will do once she leaves the SBA, but she says that even despite the frustrations and constraints of working in the bureaucracy of government, "the rewards personally and professionally far exceeded any expectations."

What would you like to see the SBA focus on going forward? Leave a note below and let us know.

Catherine Clifford

Senior Entrepreneurship Writer at CNBC

Catherine Clifford is senior entrepreneurship writer at CNBC. She was formerly a senior writer at Entrepreneur.com, the small business reporter at CNNMoney and an assistant in the New York bureau for CNN. Clifford attended Columbia University where she earned a bachelor's degree. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow her on Twitter at @CatClifford.

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