Senate Holds Confirmation Hearing for SBA Chief

Mills faces rough waters at her agency

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Karen Gordon Mills is sworn in at her Senate hearing. (Source: Senate)

As confirmation hearings go, few — if any — of President Barack Obama’s picks have received as warm and bipartisan a welcome as the one his choice to head the Small Business Administration, Karen Gordon Mills, got today from the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

By all accounts from both Republicans and Democrats who sit on the committee, Mills, a venture capital expert, possesses a unique blend of education, experience, and passion that will enable her to be a strong advocate and champion for both entrepreneurs and an embattled agency. And, as committee chairwoman Sen. Mary Landrieu (D.-Louisiana) was relieved to note, her tax returns appear to be in order.

Mills, whose hearing was delayed due to the illness of her eldest son, is expected to take charge of the SBA at a critical juncture in its history. In the last eight years, its budget has been slashed by 28% — making it almost dangerously underfunded, Landrieu said. While both the House and Senate small business committees are working to restore that funding, the SBA must in the meantime still carry out its mission to provide critical lending, technical assistance, and entrepreneurship programs for business owners who are struggling during this economic crisis and facing the prospect of closing their doors.

Mills pledged to act immediately to implement provisions in the economic stimulus package to get both loans and contracts to small businesses, saying that it will be one of her top priorities in addition to increasing the number of banks that make SBA guaranteed loans and making it easier for both borrowers and lenders to participate in the agency’s loan programs.

“With Ms. Mills’ venture capital background, I believe she will work to expand access to this vital source of financing, which many minorities have had trouble accessing,” said Landrieu. “I’m confident she will be a strong advocate for minorities, women and all struggling entrepreneurs facing tough economic times.”

Federal agencies have a statutory obligation to award 23% of their contracts to small business owners. But their record, thus far, according to both small business committees, is abysmal. Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat, warned Mills that she will be expected to work aggressively with these agencies and provide statistical progress reports.

Mills said that she believes that small business participation in federal contracting is a “win-win” for the agencies and the businesses, particularly those headed by women and minorities. Part of the problem, she believes, is that agency representatives simply don’t know how to work with small businesses, thinking them more trouble than they’re worth and questioning their viability. She said that she will increase the number of procurement representatives and ensure that all of the representatives receive the training needed to work effectively with small businesses and to reach their contracting goals.

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