Balancing businesses big and small

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Chapman has been fighting, and suing, the SBA for years over the number of government contracts earmarked for small businesses that instead go to firms controlled by venture capitalists or Fortune 500 companies.

"If, in her first week, she doesn't address this issue, she shouldn't be allowed to stay a second week," he says - but he doesn't hold out much hope. His prediction: "She'll be a big opponent of mine for the next four years."

Throughout her career, Mills has had one foot in the business world and one in the political realm. In addition to her service on assorted advisory boards, Mills has been an active political donor, contributing more than $60,000 over the past decade to a variety of Democratic office-seekers, including both to Barack Obama and, before he won his party's nomination, to his main rival, Hillary Clinton. In July, Mills donated $28,500 to the Obama Victory Fund, a fundraising operation that distributed cash to Obama's campaign and to the Democratic National Committee. She has worked closely with most of Maine's political leaders, including current governor John Baldacci, for whom she chairs an economic council.

But Mills' defenders say she is in tune with the needs of entrepreneurs running companies that will never be power players on Wall Street or in Washington. Jane Sheehan, CEO of the Foundation for Blood Research in Scarborough, Maine, served with Mills on the board of the Maine Technology Institute, a government-funded nonprofit that invests in local technology initiatives. Maine entrepreneurs often prefer to fly solo - Sheehan speaks admiringly of the "lobsterman mentality" of self-reliance and austerity - but Mills helped bring local owners together to collectively strengthen their businesses, Sheehan says.

"She demonstrated solutions [to them] that if they cluster together for a common purpose, the cluster would bring resources needed to make their industry grow," she says. "I think she'll be a breath of fresh air, not only for Maine small businesses, but for other rural states."

Awaiting confirmation

Mills confirmation hearing in the Senate has not yet been scheduled. As the Senate devotes its attention to crafting the massive and urgent $900 billion stimulus package, Mills has her own distractions: Soon after she accepted the SBA nomination, her college-age son Will required emergency surgery for a brain tumor. Mills' husband Barry has told students and colleagues at Bowdoin that Will's long-term prognosis looks good, and a spokeswoman for Obama's transition team says Mills' nomination is on-track and moving forward.

Balancing her professional and family lives has always been a priority for Mills. The mother of three sons, Mills commutes several days each week between New York City and Brunswick. With the SBA job, her weekly commute to Washington will be "just another short plane ride away," Barry Mills said in a note posted on Bowdoin's Web site.

Brunswick residents are used to seeing Karen at her sons' sports games, at college events, and around town at Brunswick's shops and restaurants. According to Mary Herman, the wife of former Governor King and a close friend of Mills, Karen has always scheduled business trips so that at least one parent is home for their teenagers every night. "They want to be there for homework and for supervision," Herman says. "She's absolutely down to earth and never hesitates to roll up her sleeves and be a helpful friend."

On Brunswick's Maine Street, business owners hope to see Mills roll up her sleeves at the SBA. "I don't see [the stimulus and bailout] trickling down real fast to the small businesses of America, but we do have hope with this new administration," Perry says.

"It would be a shame to see this quality of life go. You just need to look at Maine Street to know that things can go either way." To top of page

What do you think the SBA should do to help small companies? Join the discussion.

The SBA quagmire: Rebuilding a ravaged agency

The big think: How to fix the SBA

2009: The forecast for entrepreneurs

Sharp drop in small business loans

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