Obama Taps Venture Capitalist to Head Small Business Administration

By Sharon McLoone
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, December 19, 2008; 2:32 PM

President-elect Barack Obama this afternoon nominated venture capital expert Karen Gordon Mills to head the Small Business Administration.

"We must strengthen the small businesses that are the backbone" of the American economy, Obama said at a Chicago press conference. "With Karen Mills as administrator, America's small businesses will have a partner in Washington" who will help them create jobs and understand the challenges they face.

Mills, who has been part of the president-elect's SBA transition team, is president of MMP Group, a private equity investor and adviser since 1993. From 1999 to 2007 she was founding partner and managing director of Solera Capital, a New York based venture capital firm. She is also lead director of Scotts Miracle-Gro. Her husband is president of Bowdoin College in Maine.

During the announcement, Mills called small businesses "the heart" of the American economy and said businesses on Main Street or perhaps a "green energy startup" are what can help the nation create jobs and remain competitive.

She also praised the American tradition of immigrants contributing to the economy by starting small firms in their new home.

"Small business will be an important focus of this administration as we work our way through these difficult economic times," said Mills at the event, which included nominations for several other administration positions.

Although the announcement wasn't official until this afternoon, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), the top Republican on the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, released a statement this morning congratulating Mills and lauding her background.

"Karen has a tremendous background in venture capital and lending, which will prove beneficial during these times in which small enterprises require every tool at their disposal to create new jobs," she said.

"[The] decision to name an SBA administrator so early in the transition is a good sign for small businesses," said House Small Business Chairwoman Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.). "Through budgets cuts and mismanagement during the last eight years, the SBA has become nothing more than a shell of the agency it used to be. Reversing this course is essential."

The National Small Business Association, an advocacy group, said it was not troubled that Mills does not come from a small-business background.

"We're not overly concerned by administrators without small-business experience or backgrounds -- like former SBA chief Steven Preston -- so long as they are clearly grounded and have experience with key business, economic and operational challenges... which Ms. Mills appears to have," said Molly Brogan, the association's vice president of public affairs.

Acting SBA Administrator Sandy Baruah was also pleased with Obama's nomination.

"Karen Mills has been a friend and professional partner over the years in both my roles as the assistant secretary of Commerce and the head of the SBA. She is ideally suited to lead the agency," he said. "Mills' background is a combination of management, venture capital and public policy, three elements key to leading the agency successfully."

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