In 2008, experienced venture capitalist and entrepreneur Karen Mills found herself looking for new opportunities. It wasn’t long before she was approached with an interview.
“I said, ‘Okay, who I am going to interview with?’” Mills recalled. “They said, ‘Go to Chicago tomorrow – you’re going to have an interview with the president-elect, Barack Obama.’”
Soon after, Mills became the new administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, with President Obama acting as her boss for the next four years.
Now a current senior fellow at the Harvard Business School, Mills will be the keynote speaker at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation Economic Forum on Tuesday, Oct. 31. Though she left her role as administrator of the SBA in 2013, Mills’ insights from that time have informed much of what she plans to speak about at the event.
“I joined the administration in January 2009 and that was really the height of job loss among small business owners,” Mills said. “No banks were lending because they had all these bad mortgages. They had just stopped. People were getting their credit lines pulled even if they hadn’t done anything wrong. This was a dire situation.”
To alleviate some of these issues, Mills worked with the White House economic team to raise the guarantee rates on SBA loans. In six months, 1,000 banks were back to lending to small business owners. Mills pointed to her experience as a venture capitalist and entrepreneur as being an advantage in the crisis.
“I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to be bold in government. I just thought you were supposed to solve the problem. So I think that helped.”
While the decision-making process in Washington was important, Mills mentioned how significant it was to see the very real impacts these decisions had for small business owners across the country. These impacts were clearly visible when in one instance, she visited with sawmill owners in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
“I was in a field in Arkadelphia with the sawmill owner and his wife, and his wife was the bookkeeper,” Mills recounted. “I was six months into the new loan programs, and she looked at me and she said, ‘You know, you saved our business.’ And it was just a striking moment because I didn’t really understand until that how important the activities we were undertaking in Washington were for these people who were so hard hit.”
Along with her leadership of the SBA, Mills’ experiences working with the state government in Maine have influenced how she approaches economic issues. In 2007, former Maine Governor John Baldacci reached out to Mills to help create jobs as the Brunswick Naval Air Station was slated to close. Her involvement improved the job market by bringing together the composites and boatbuilding industries, and the University of Maine.
This project piqued Mills’ interest in economic clusters and cross-sector collaboration, in which businesses, government, universities and communities work together to support economic development. Mills plans to speak about these concepts in relationship to Milwaukee’s economic future at the Forum event.
“I have a great admiration for what Wisconsin, and in particular Milwaukee has been able to do in terms of thinking as an organization, thinking as a community and organizing cross-sector collaboration. It really is a model for how you transform an economy from perhaps a manufacturing economy to something that will create good-paying jobs in the future.”
Mills also plans on speaking about a new academic paper published with Mercedes Delgado at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The paper works to establish the importance of service businesses in creating jobs.
“You know, we always focus on how much of the economy is manufacturing and we always think manufacturing is the answer – make it in America again,” Mills explained. “But it’s not the only way we’re going to create jobs. One of the ideas we might refute is that manufacturing is good, service is bad.”
In helping the economy and job creation in Milwaukee, thinking about training individuals and clustering together small- and medium-sized service businesses is key, according to Mills.
She also had advice for those who may be on the fence about attending the Economic Forum.
“You might say, ‘Well I’m not in government why should I go? I’m just running my business or I’m just in my community.’ Well everybody in education, in government, in universities and innovation, and science and in business, large and small, needs to be a part of our economic solutions. Everybody needs to be at the table.”
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How to go
What: Milwaukee Jewish Federation Economic Forum 2017
When: Tuesday, Oct. 31, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Where: Pfister Hotel, 424 E. Wisconsin Ave.
Info: For individual tickets at $125 each, visit MilwaukeeJewish.org/EconomicForum on Oct. 16 or after. Limited sponsorships are also still available.