Got an idea? The SBA can put you in business
Elizabeth Echols grew up in the East Bay and earned her law degree at Stanford University, where she also served as editor of the Stanford Law Review. Recognized as a "Mover and Shaker" by Business Week magazine, she's now the regional administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), putting her economics and political science talents to work in helping startup businesses here in the Tri-Valley and throughout the West get their enterprises moving with adequate financing and hands-on advice. In addition to developing new programs to help small businesses, she also is the federal agency's listening post here and in the Silicon Valley where many high tech ventures are under way or just getting started.
She talks about the three "Cs" that affect small businesses: capital, counseling and contracts. Two new programs especially cater to the creative software, engineering "cloud-based" technical entrepreneurs here in the Valley. One is called the Innovation Investment Fund, which is designed for early stage companies that might be between "friends and family" in terms of acquiring the initial capital they need at the early stage. Through this program, the SBA can give these startups a needed financial push until the larger venture capital firms take an interest. Echols also has launched the Impact Fund, which targets the early birds hoping to bring products and services to market in the clean energy fields. Yet another program, called Small Business Innovation Research (or SBIR), works with small businesses already engaged in federal research and development projects to help them expand into related commercial markets.
Echols said the SBA's goal is to make sure at least 23% of all government contracts go to small business, a group she identifies as manufacturers with fewer than 500 employees but much smaller numbers when it comes to retail, service and construction operations that could also handle government needs. That translates into roughly $100 billion a year in contracts from the government, which is by far the country's largest procurer of everything from paperclips to jet airplanes.
Many of those who win a federal contract are small businesses such as hundreds in the Tri-Valley who have become key providers. The SBA also has 14,500 counselors around the country who work with Echols' and other regional offices, almost all volunteers who have succeeded in starting their own businesses or are retired and have the time and interest in what Echols called "giving back." Counselors for budding entrepreneurs in our area come through SCORE, a nonprofit association dedicated to helping small businesses get off the ground, grow and achieve their goals through education and mentorship. Silicon Valley SCORE in San Jose handles Pleasanton, and Echols urged anyone with "that next great idea" to call (408) 453-6237 to see if they're eligible for help.
As part of helping entrepreneurs, Echols said the SBA has just re-launched its popular small loan Advantage program, which provides a streamlined application for participating in the agency's capital loan program. The new program has increased the amount of financial help to $350,000 and has been opened to all lenders, including banks and nonprofits. Re-launched just six weeks ago, the number of loans guaranteed for startups and emerging businesses already exceeds the total number of loans provided in the first 16 months of the last similar program, which offered less funding.
In partnership with Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department, the SBA also has just launched a new program to help returning military men and women transition back to civilian life. Echols said 250,000 are now leaving the military every year and she will work with military groups, such as Pleasanton Military Families, to introduce them to entrepreneurship. It's a four-part program that will identify the leadership and professional skills they've acquired in the service and help them develop action plans for using them in new businesses here at home. So far, Echols said, the percentage of returning vets who succeed as entrepreneurs through this program is far greater than the rest of the population as a whole.