Donna Davis, Regional Administrator for U.S. Small Business Administration Region IX
After speaking with Donna Davis, it would be difficult not to be excited about the idea of becoming an entrepreneur. Her official title is Regional Administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Region IX, but she calls herself the region’s “Chief Evangelist,” an apt term for a woman who is a leader, motivator, and tireless advocate for small businesses in California, Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, and Guam.
Her passion for small business stems from her own experience as an entrepreneur. Davis, appointed by President Barack Obama in December 2013, was most recently the President and CEO of DIR Group, Inc., a business and advocacy consulting firm. Prior to that, she was the CEO of the Arizona Small Business Association, an organization that saw tremendous growth under her leadership.
The SBA offers resources to help Americans start, build, and grow their businesses. Through the SBA, small business owners have access information and assistance to everything from developing a business plan to financing a business, acquiring loans, and managing a business. During April, AARP is again partnering with the SBA for National Encore Entrepreneur Mentor Month to offer mentoring and training to individuals age 50 and over interested in starting or growing a business. In advance of our joint April 26 event in Whittier, Davis spoke with us about her work, the challenges and opportunities facing California’s small business owners, and what’s beyond the horizon for entrepreneurs.
You have such diverse experience in your background – working as an entrepreneur, serving on boards, and even working as a park ranger. How and why did you decide to join the SBA?
It is an honor and a privilege to have been appointed to this position by the president. It’s a perfect fit for me. The SBA has ten regions and ours (Region IX) has 20% of the country’s small businesses. That’s remarkable. California alone has the 7th largest economy in the world; it is a nation within a region. The scale and magnitude of what we do here is staggering and exciting. I consider myself not just the Chief Executive Officer, but also the Chief Evangelist for the region.
Having been a serial entrepreneur, I understand the uncertainties facing small business owners. I know what we go through on a day-to-day basis and what keeps us up at night, because I’ve been there. I’ve signed the front of the check, not just the back. I am fanatically passionate about small businesses and entrepreneurs because I admire their bravery, courage, resilience, and innovation. Entrepreneurs can’t just dip their toes in – they have to jump in with both feet. Entrepreneurs and small businesses are not only the economic backbone of the country, they are also the heart and soul of America. I love this region: the diversity, the innovation, and the willingness to be bold. There is a pioneering spirit here.
What challenges did you face as an entrepreneur? What’s the most valuable knowledge you would pass along to other entrepreneurs based on your experience?
The biggest challenge for any entrepreneur is capital. For me, I started with “hip pocket capital,” my credit cards. Not everyone can do that. But there are so many lending options through the SBA, from microloans to lines of credit to real estate loans, and there are new options out there like crowdfunding as well. In terms of advice, I tell potential entrepreneurs to develop great relationships with three people: an attorney, a CPA, and a banker. I would add that business owners should get a line of credit before it’s needed. If you’re already in financial trouble, it will be more difficult to get a line of credit – so don’t wait until you’re in a pinch.
How is the SBA helping small business owners, especially those age 50 and older, in California?
In these fast-paced, complex times, the SBA helps small business owners and entrepreneurs cut through the clutter. We help people zero in on the information that will help them start a business, then survive and thrive. For instance, we’re sharing information on how to stay current and relevant with social media, as well as working with different generations. Boomers have to know how to market to millennials – they are different from us. The SBA also works to ensure you get experience in the area of business that interests you. We can pair you with a mentor that has already successfully opened a business in your sector or niche to share the pitfalls and challenges. And we help entrepreneurs think about how they can stand out. I like to ask: What’s your unicorn? What is it that makes your business unique? Why do people have to come to you instead of another business? Finding the answers to these questions will help business owners learn how to brand themselves and how to talk about themselves.
What do you envision for California’s small business owners in the future? What’s on the horizon for our state’s entrepreneurs?
We’ve turned a corner with the economy. Although we’re still not where we were, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There is enormous opportunity in part because of the wave of boomers. They offer opportunity both as a market and as potential entrepreneurs – 63% of boomers plan to work in retirement. Key sectors at the precipice to explode, especially in California, include biomedical; sustainability, especially around water; and export/international trade, because we’re in a global economy. I also think there’s opportunity around what might be termed spiritual growth. As boomers age, we start to think more about our lives and our legacies. We ask ourselves questions like: How can I make a difference? How can I change my community and my world? How can I help others? Encore entrepreneurs, like people who seek encore careers, are looking for something that resonates with their values and what’s important to them.
Donna offered a few final words of advice for small business owners: “Continue to dream big, be bold, and make things happen!” We’d add that AARP can help you turn those big dreams into Real Possibilities. Join us on April 26 in Whittier for our workshop on starting and growing your own small business.