Meet The Woman Fighting For All Of America’s Main Streets—SBA
Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman Seeks To Not Only Recover, But Build Back Better
By Rhett Buttle, Founder of Public Private Strategies
Isabella Casillas Guzman, the newly confirmed Administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA) has taken the reins of the agency at a critical time for Main Street.
The Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged small businesses. In fact, a recent Federal Reserve Bank survey found that 30% of—or 9 million—small businesses in the U.S. do not expect to survive 2021 without additional government assistance. Another survey the Fed conducted with AARP revealed that many small business owners ages 45 and over struggled to make it through 2020 and that their revenue was much lower than expected. To help Main Streets across America bounce back, Administrator Guzman is at the helm of implementing SBA’s programs swiftly and effectively.
The Biden Administration is closing in on its first 100 days and has been focused on making sure small businesses and innovative startups recover and build back better from the pandemic. Administrator Guzman has been in her new role for a little over a month. Already the Biden Administration has made changes to the Paycheck Protection Program, and the American Rescue Plan will hand small businesses several other critical recovery programs including the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.
That’s not all. More may be coming if President Biden gets his wish and the American Jobs Plan passes Congress. As the agency undertakes the significant task of overseeing a serious amount of capital and helping to rescue America’s economic engine—small business—I had the good fortune of speaking with her in one of her first sit-down interviews. Below is a summary of our conversation.
Rhett Buttle: Tell us a bit about yourself and what experiences you plan to bring to this position?
Isabella Casillas Guzman: I grew up in a small business family. My father owned and operated multiple veterinary hospitals in California, and, as a kid, I loved being at his clinic, watching him interact with his clients and seeing how much he and all the other small business owners meant to the neighborhood. As I grew older and began working with him after school and on weekends, I started to understand how much work he put in to his business—how challenging it was to have his workday 100% focused on his clients and treating their animals, and then shifting hats during lunch and into the evening to keep up on the books, compliance, ordering, payroll, and workforce issues. I remember the large briefcase he would bring home full of paperwork.
From a young age, I learned firsthand how small business owners wear multiple hats and need a team, and I believe that the SBA—with the vast array of programs that we offer—can be an important part of that team.
Over my career I have been dedicated to helping small businesses start and grow. I have partnered to start businesses myself and advised founders. I also served in leadership at the U.S. SBA during the Obama-Biden administration; and then as the Small Business Advocate for California, the fifth largest economy in the world. I bring all those experiences with me to my position today, but most of all, I bring a passion and deep respect for small businesses and innovative startups and the impact they have on our communities, our nation, and the world. They define our Main Streets, deliver the products and services we depend on every day, and innovate to solve global problems.
Buttle: As incoming SBA Administrator, what are your top priorities in helping small businesses recover from Covid-19?
Guzman: This pandemic and the resulting economic crisis have gone on longer than anyone anticipated. Right now, millions of small business owners are wondering how much longer they can hold on—the struggle is unrelenting. I witnessed this firsthand in California. At the SBA, we are here to help. Together with the dedicated mission-oriented staff at the SBA, I have made it my top priority to deliver that help swiftly, effectively, and equitably.
That’s why, when I first took office, I nearly tripled the amount of funding businesses could receive from our Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL), which have become an important lifeline for so many impacted businesses. Beginning the week of April 6, EIDL maximum loan amounts increased to $500,000 from the previous cap imposed of $150,000. And our team is busily reaching out to those eligible who applied under the old cap.
And through the American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed into law on March 11, by President Biden, we’re working diligently to release billions more in much-needed aid—with $15 billion in flexible disaster program grants for the smallest and most severely impacted businesses, a $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund grant program, a $16.2 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, and more than $7 billion more for Paycheck Protection Program loans. We’re also building the Community Navigator Pilot program to increase resource and service delivery of SBA’s programs to small businesses—a grassroots, hyper local network that will ensure our underserved small businesses are connected to resources.
We know that we’ve got our work cut out for us. But we intend to be as entrepreneurial as the small businesses we serve. And, with every loan, every investment, every grant, and every connection we make with our small businesses and innovative startups, we will work to be sure that we’re delivering our services equitably—recognizing the changing face of entrepreneurship. We know that women- and minority-owned businesses were already facing historic barriers limiting their growth, and that opportunity gaps have only widened during the pandemic. That is why it is imperative that we review every program in the SBA portfolio to ensure equity is a top priority.
Buttle: Business owners of color and women-owned businesses were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. What steps do you plan to take to create a more equitable small business ecosystem?
Guzman: Systemic racism is a persistent roadblock for women and minority small business owners. This was true before the pandemic, and unfortunately, it’s even more true now. That’s why, together with President Biden and Vice President Harris, I’m intent on making inclusion and equity top priorities. At the SBA, that often means making sure we’re reaching the smallest of the small businesses—particularly the businesses that do not have in-house lawyers, accountants, or special connections that give them an edge.
We are laser-focused on both design and implementation of our programs because we know it’s not just about access, but also about connection. We need to meet all of our small businesses where they are.
The SBA offers an array of resources and programs to help minority and underserved businesses reset and retool during these challenging times—but we’re looking at doing more through policy and process to remove those historic impediments, and partnerships and outreach to more equitably reach and distribute our services to business owners of color and women-owned businesses.
We have taken major steps to help the small businesses that need the help most. One example is our soon-to-be-launched Restaurant Relief Grant Program, which will prioritize women, veterans, and socially and economically disadvantaged businesses in its first 21 days, as well as designate set-aside funding for the smallest businesses.
One of the things I am particularly excited about—thanks to American Rescue Plan—is our work around the upcoming Community Navigators Pilot program, which was created to help make sure that small business resources are more accessible than ever to entrepreneurs with disabilities, veterans, women, immigrants, minority small business owners, and those from rural and other underserved communities across the country.
This $100 million grant program will utilize a “hub and spoke” model to enlist trusted, culturally-knowledgeable community navigators to conduct targeted outreach to small business owners that lack access to critical resources, services, capital and/or networks. The local navigators will include private nonprofit organizations, SBA resource partners (Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), Women’s Business Centers, and SCORE), Tribes, states, and local governments with demonstrated excellence in outreach and service/resource delivery to small businesses in underserved communities. This is a critical step to help ensure SBA’s great resources reach all our aspiring and established entrepreneurs for greater equity and access to opportunity to reopen, startup, grow, and be resilient.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. We know much more work needs to be done to level the playing field.
Buttle: For someone who is planning on starting a small business in 2021, what advice would you give?
Guzman: The pandemic and resulting economic crisis have brought extreme hardship to many sectors, but also incredible new market opportunities for companies meeting new consumer trends and demands. I would say that we’re beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel thanks to the American Rescue Plan and the progress the Biden-Harris Administration has made on the vaccine rollout. I’m hopeful that 2021 will be a good year for small businesses. And my hope is bolstered by the fact that we are rolling out billions of dollars in economic relief for small businesses at all stages of growth.
Now more than ever, there is a real opportunity for our economy to come back stronger. And if that is going to happen, small businesses must continue to be the driving force they’ve always been. That means that we need people to be risk takers and start their own businesses or grow their existing businesses. If you’re ready to tap into the entrepreneurial spirit that is our nation’s beating heart, we want you to know that you won’t be alone. Help is here through the SBA.
We have many tools available to help you find access to capital and unlock new revenue streams, including tapping into the $539 billion federal marketplace, and we have counseling services that will help you map out your path to success. Go to SBA.gov to find your SBA district office, your local SBDC, your local SCORE counselor, your local Women’s Business Center, or your local Veterans Business Outreach Center—or the myriad other resource centers affiliated with the SBA—and plug into the powerful and vast networks and resources that are available. We’re here to make your dream a reality.
Buttle: Given the unique circumstances, do you see the SBA playing a new or more innovative role over the next four years?
Guzman: The SBA has changed tremendously over the course of the pandemic. We’ve already delivered approximately $900 billion in economic aid to America’s entrepreneurs, small businesses, and nonprofits. That’s nearly $1 trillion to help our nation’s small businesses weather this pandemic and the resulting economic crisis. We’re reaching more small businesses than ever before. And I’m committed to working diligently to help ensure that this historic level of recovery funding will bring businesses back, create jobs, and grow an equitable economy that works for everyone.
I’m also committed to making sure that the SBA meets our small businesses—and the diversity they represent—where they are. Since this pandemic began, we’ve been asking our entrepreneurs to pivot and adapt to the new Covid-19 marketplace. If the SBA is going to meet the needs of our nation’s small businesses, then we have to do the same.
How we pivot and grow will determine not only our future, but the future of our emerging entrepreneurs and America’s economy. That means looking at all our programs through an inclusive lens, focusing on customer-centric design, and powering the SBA with technology to make sure we are building resources and support networks that work for everyone. I’m committed to being a good steward and using innovation and collaboration to help strengthen the newly scaled SBA so that it can help make all entrepreneurial dreams come true for all of America’s entrepreneurs.
Buttle: Anything you want to add?
Guzman: Small businesses are critical to our economic recovery, and I am working hard to help America’s small businesses start, grow, and be resilient. But they are facing unprecedented challenges and need our full engagement and support to survive and thrive again. I want small businesses to be recognized and feel like the giants they are in our economy. I will act as their voice every day and work hard to ensure that happens.
This story originally appeared on Forbes