Thursday, December 12, 2013
SOUTH PORTLAND — As paper companies, textile mills and other manufacturers closed up shop in Maine over the past decade, Karen Mills saw the economic transition.
She watched small businesses strive for capital, technology, trained workers and marketing services as they played an increasingly large role in the state's economy.
''I learned a lot in Maine about how small businesses innovate,'' Mills, who heads the U.S. Small Business Administration, said Monday at a free workshop for entrepreneurs at Southern Maine Community College. ''I'm trying to take those lessons and share them.''
Mills and a number of volunteer business counselors spent the morning offering advice and sharing resource information with about 60 Mainers who are starting new business ventures.
The three-hour session was part of a nationwide Obama administration initiative that sent top executive branch officials into communities to promote volunteerism and community service.
Mills, a venture capitalist and former business manager from Brunswick, said small businesses need to work together to meet their needs for resources such as capital, equipment and work force training.
''It's hard for small businesses to do it on their own,'' she said, ''because individually their owners are all so busy.''
Patricia Royall of Richmond was among the entrepreneurs who used Monday's event to network and glean ideas for her new business, called Jazzy Johnnys. She makes stylish but functional hospital gowns to sell to patients undergoing cancer therapy and other long-term care, as an alternative to the drafty, impersonal garments normally provided by hospitals.
Royall met another businesswoman at the workshop who makes slippers, and the two agreed to try to join forces and market their products together in a coordinated carrying bag.
''It was very helpful today for me,'' said Royall, a breast cancer survivor who came up with the idea for her business while going through radiation therapy sessions last year.
Another entrepreneur, Beth George, operates a bakery in Yarmouth where she makes bagels and pizza dough from spelt, a grain that does not trigger the food allergies associated with wheat.
George, who began baking with spelt because her son couldn't eat wheat, abandoned a law practice to go into the bakery business full time. She said she has relied heavily on a counselor from the Maine Small Business Development Center, which helped to organize Monday's event.
''When you jump off a cliff like this, you need someone to hold your hand,'' she said.
The SBA came under fire during the Bush administration, which presided over a series of budget cuts that saw staffing and small-business loan programs decline.
During her Senate confirmation hearing in April, Mills, who was nominated for the post by President Obama, said the agency lacked leadership and resources but could be turned around.
She said Monday that SBA has moved quickly since it received $730 million under the economic stimulus to distribute through loan programs.
After the stimulus funds became available, SBA loans jumped by 35 percent, Mills said Monday, and the agency's 1,400 small-business counselors are busy.
''I just want to get every bit of juice out of the taxpayers' money,'' she said.
Staff Writer Dieter Bradbury can be contacted at 791-6329 or at: