Karen Mills – Administrator, U.S. Small Business Administration

December 2010

Karen Mills

Small-Business Superwoman

By Caroline Cox

Karen Mills has been an entrepreneur, a grower of businesses and a business investor. As the current 23rd Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, she knows what it takes to keep companies afloat. With tireless dedication and a hands-on approach, the 57-year-old mother of three works closely with small businesses to ensure their advancement across the nation through loans, training and technical assistance.

Appointed by President Barack Obama, Mills manages a team of around 2,000 employees and has developed a portfolio worth more than $90 billion. She successfully drives the SBA as the leading aid for small businesses to help them access capital, create jobs and continue to thrive.

Here, Mills talks to PINK about transparent leadership and her dedication to helping women-owned small businesses succeed.


PINK: What are the secrets to your professional success?

Karen Mills: Being able to focus on the outcome that the company or organization is trying to achieve, and then assembling a great team and staying focused on that outcome. I learned this years ago when we had taken ownership of a small business in Minneapolis and we didn’t have the right team. The company was struggling. We were able to get the right team in place, we turned the business around in less than three months. It’s about attracting great people and giving them the help, power and authority to achieve the objective.

PINK: What are the biggest issues facing small businesses right now?

KM: Half the people of this country work for small businesses, so if we’re going to have these businesses lead us into the economic recovery, they need to have access to some help. At the SBA, we provide more than $30 billion of capital in the form of SBA loan guarantees to small businesses. With the Affordable Care Act, we also provide better access to healthcare. We were in New Jersey once, and there was a woman who said the day she was able to provide healthcare for her employees was the day she would consider her business a success.

PINK: What are the biggest issues facing professional women right now?

KM: When I graduated from business school, I think my class was only 11 percent women. The issue remains access to opportunity, particularly for women entrepreneurs. Thirty percent of all companies are owned by women, and they are the fastest growing segment in today’s small business world. We have to be focused on helping them get access to capital and provide the opportunity to advance, achieve and create jobs.

PINK: What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?

KM: Do what is right for you not what is right for the [person] next to you. Set achievable goals and work your way toward them in your own timeframe.

PINK: Who gave you this advice?

KM: I was speaking at the Harvard Business School to some students while pregnant with my first child. They said, “We don’t want to work day and night, get in a rat race and compete in an arena that won’t bring us success. We want to achieve success in a way that is right for us.” I realized they were giving me important business advice.

PINK: Describe your leadership style.

KM: I am very transparent and fact-based. Here at the SBA, our goals are to help small businesses grow and create jobs. We create a set of metrics that describe that success, and everyone on the team knows we need to work together to achieve that success.

PINK: You manage a team of more than 2,000 employees. How do you motivate and communicate with them?

KM: It’s important to communicate on a continuous basis. We use the web to have town hall meetings, and we have a “stand up meeting” every morning to say what’s wrong, what’s going on and what we need to pay attention to that day. You’re not allowed to sit down because it’s a quick meeting. It’s also everything from immediate communication to long-term visits to the field.

PINK: What is your biggest weakness as a leader?

KM: I have more ideas than we have time to execute, so it’s very important for me to be disciplined. I’m very ambitious for our agency because I feel that small businesses need so much help, but we have to prioritize and make sure we are achieving the goals we set.

PINK: The SBA has been criticized in the past for not meeting its goal of ensuring at least 5 percent of government contracts go to women-owned small companies. What steps have been taken since then to ensure this goal is met?

KM: We’ve announced the women-owned small business rule, a rule that was passed by Congress more than 10 years ago but never implemented. In past administrations, it’s been left to languish and die. This will help the SBA meet our goal of 5 percent of government contracts going to women-owned small businesses; it’s going to be available in the market place in February.

PINK: What are your best balance tips?

KM: Understand that you can do these things in sequence. I have a close friend who had four kids and left a very successful career in banking for 20 years. She is now back in banking at a very high level and making more than $1 million a year. I’ve had a number of careers already: I’ve been an entrepreneur, a grower of businesses, an investor in businesses and I now have the privilege of being in public service. There is a lot of time to do the things you have on your agenda.

PINK: You have three sons (ages 17, 22 and 24). What is the hardest thing about trying to excel at work while being a mother?

KM: Lack of sleep. When children are young, you never get enough sleep. Then, when they’re older, you still can’t sleep. It’s important to set priorities for your own individual sense of success and then try to balance your life within those priorities.

PINK: What is it about your background or upbringing that has resulted in your choices and success today?

KM: I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. My grandfather had a lot of influence on me; he came to this country from Russia and started a manufacturing operation in textiles. I grew up with business and manufacturing being discussed around the kitchen table. I also have a mother who was active in leading the business, so my three sisters and I are used to women-lead entrepreneurial businesses. One of my sisters is a doctor and an entrepreneur in the biotech arena. I [grew up] in a culture of working for yourself and achieving what we know as ‘the American dream,’ which is the ability to come to this country, grow a business and build something.

PINK: How do you relax and rejuvenate yourself?

KM: When I turned 50 I took on a new challenge: I started competing in a number of sprint triathlons. I trained heavily and enjoyed the challenge. I have decided now, at 57, that I’m going to turn to other forms of exercise and less competitive races.

PINK: What is one thing most people don’t know about you?

KM: I was, a number of years ago, a decent and functional potter. I would produce mugs, pitchers and vases, and all of my family members have pieces of my pottery from that era. I would like to go back to it sometime, maybe that will be one of my future methods of relaxation and rejuvenation.

PINK: What is one goal you have yet to achieve?

KM: I wanted to go to the moon, or at least into space. That seemed quite possible years ago, after the first moon landing. But I think I’ve given that up, so now I very much want to land an aircraft carrier.

PINK: How do you define success?

KM: A happy and healthy family and the ability to get up every morning and do something you love that in some small way helps someone else. Success is the opportunity to move the needle and help the world.

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