Obama needs a new SBA chief — luckily, small business leaders some have ideas


Steve Case is already one of the top entre­pre­neur­ship advocates in the White House. Should the president tap him to t ake over the SBA? (Charles Dharapak/AP)

One month from today, the U.S. Small Business Administration will lose its top official, placing heightened pressure on the administration to quickly find a replacement.

So, who should fill her seat on the president’s cabinet?

On Small Business reached out to some of the country’s top small business leaders and lobbyists to find out who they think should be at the top of the president’s short list, now that current SBA Administrator Karen Mills has announced plans to leave the agency at the end of August.

Here are their recommendations.

1. Don Graves,executive director of the President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness

Background: In addition to advising the president on an array of economic and employment issues, Graves serves as the deputy assistant secretary for small business, community development and housing policy for the Treasury. He oversees small business finance and development policy and oversees the administration’s new Small Business Lending Fund and State Small Business Credit Initiative.

Before joining the administration, he served as a partner with Graves, Horton, Askew & Johns and as an advisory board member for the Greater Washington Board of Trade’s Small Business Network.

Why Graves? “Karen will clearly be a tough act to follow,” Steve Caldeira, president and chief executive of the International Franchise Association, said in an interview. “She listened to our access-to-capital concerns and helped make the agency a real lifeline for small businesses during the financial collapse, but we are still not where we need to be to meet the forecasted demand for loans in our industry. We need someone who really understands small business financing and these lending programs.”

“Over the past three-plus years, Don Graves and I have built a strong working relationship. He is very approachable, has impeccable integrity and he truly understands franchising and small businesses,” Caldeira said. “He works intimately with the Small Business Lending Fund and the Small Business Credit Initiative, and if he was nominated, my sense is that it would be well-received by the small business community.”

Why else? “The Obama team led by Mills was not afraid to break some china, but now the agency needs leadership that can implement the changes and do the yard-by-yard blocking and tackling that’s necessary to make reforms and improvements work,” Beth Solomon, president of the National Association of Development Companies, said in an e-mail. “Don has been a trusted advisor to the White House on small business policy. That can only help.”

2. Steve Case, chairman of the Case Foundation and Revolution LLC

Background: One of the biggest names in entrepreneurship circles, Case is best known as one of the founders of America Online. He retired in 2003 and has since built a substantial investment portfolio through his firm, Revolution LLC, including early stakes in LivingSocial, Zipcar and FedBid.

Case now serves on President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, and two years ago, the president tapped him to lead a new Startup America Partnership, a public-private nonprofit aimed at encouraging new business development and helping young firms expand more quickly.

Why Case? “The next SBA Administrator must have the respect of the small business and entrepreneurial community, and must have the capacity to hit the ground running,” Karen Kerrigan, president of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council,” wrote in an e-mail. “Not only is Steve a highly successful self-made entrepreneur who has proven he can run large organizations, he is already engaged and leading key White House initiatives and remains an advocate on important policy priorities that concern entrepreneurs.”

“Obviously, Steve brings extraordinary social capital to the table, as well as established relationships with President Obama, members of Congress and business leaders,” she added. “A person of Steve’s calibre would boost efforts to strengthen entrepreneurship and high-growth businesses, and would bring immense value and the entrepreneur’s perspective to the President’s cabinet.”

3. Carroll Thomas, associate administrator for the SBA’s Office of Small Business Development Centers

Background: In her current role, Thomas oversees one of the agency’s most popular training programs, with more than 900 locations across the country. She is policy development, implementation and oversight of the $113 million in public and private funding that fuel the Small Business Development Centers.

Thomas has more than three decades of government and entrepreneurial experience, dating back to her early years as a retail franchise owner. She later joined the Department of Commerce as a program manager, leading an effort to help small manufacturers access capital, find work and compete in global markets.

Why Thomas? “Looking forward at the next few years, we’re seeing a set of trends coming together that make it imperative that we have a leader at the SBA who takes it as a personal mission to train, develop and support the next generation of Main Street small business owners to build small businesses from the ground up, create jobs, and build strong local economies,” Sam Blair, network director for the Main Street Alliance,” said in an e-mail. “With over a third of small business owners in 49 out of the 50 states approaching retirement age, we need the next SBA head to put a strong focus on incubating the next generation of small business in America.”

“The Small Business Development Centers have the infrastructure and the mission alignment to be the vehicle that provides this training and support,” he added. “Thomas, as current leader of the SBDCs and someone with 30 years of small business development experience, would bring a strong vision for building the next generation of American small businesses to the administrator post.”

4. Jere Glover, SBA Office of Advocacy chief counsel under President Clinton

Background: Now an attorney at Seidman & Associates in Washington, Glover previously served as the chief small business advocate under President Clinton. He was responsible for ensuring that all federal regulations took small business concerns into account and for helping business owners find relief from burdensome rules.

Glover previously ran his own law firm and has served as an executive for several technology businesses. He is currently the executive director of the Small Business Technology Council, a division of the National Small Business Association.

Why Glover? “I think Jere Glover would be a great choice,” Scott Hauge, president of Small Business California, said in an e-mail. “He served as Small Business Advocate under Clinton and has a good background in small business access to capital and Small Business Innovation Research program, and he certainly knows the SBA both it’s strengths and weaknesses. He also isn’t afraid to stir things up.”

Some additional thoughts from small business leaders who declined to recommend specific candidates:

Jean Card, vice president of media and communications at the National Federation of Independent Business: “One of the agency’s most important jobs is to speak up for small businesses in the federal government, and to that end, we hope the next administrator will take very seriously the role of the SBA Office of Advocacy. We need a strong and effective voice for small businesses in the administration.”

Kenneth Yancey, Jr., chief executive of SCORE: The ideal candidate for the leader of the SBA should be someone who not only has small business experience, but someone who understands true small business. This person must be relatable to those small businesses that were started to feed a family; not just to those who seek to ‘make it big’ or go public. Recognizing the challenges small businesses face in regard to finding capital, getting loans, the uncertainty around healthcare and other legislation will also be important for the future leader of the SBA.”

John Arensmeyer, founder of the Small Business Majority: “Small businesses want policies that encourage job creation and maximize business opportunities and cost savings in a variety of areas, including health care, taxes, clean energy, immigration and others. Because small employers’ needs span many different issue areas, it’s important the president’s choice to lead the SBA has the ability to coordinate across cabinet departments and work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.”

Thom Ruhe, vice president of entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation: “[Our] recommendation to be the new SBA Administrator is Jane Entrepreneur. Jane has founded more than one company, leading several through rapid growth, and was also at the helm for the failure of a number of her ventures. She has lived the gut-wrenching experience of lying awake at night, worrying over how to make payroll the next morning.”

Who do you think should lead the SBA? Please share your suggestions below.

Follow On Small Business and J.D. Harrison .

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he manages the Post's On Small Business blog.
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