WILMINGTON – Michelle Harris has built a career around opening opportunities for small business owners, especially those from underrepresented populations.
The 33-year civil servant spent time at the Delaware Office of Supplier Diversity, which ensures diversity in the state’s procurement efforts; the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, an arm of the secretary’s office that ensures each of the operating administrations of the department – highways, airports, transit, etc. – achieve their small business goals and policies; and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), where she worked the 8(a) Government Contracting and Business Development program.
Those experiences will suit her well as the state’s new SBA district office director, replacing longtime director John Fleming who was recently promoted by President Joe Biden to overseeing the region’s operations.
“When this particular opportunity came up as the district director, it just really spoke to my passion for working with small businesses,” Harris told Delaware Business Times. “I can make sure that in my own backyard, the state of Delaware, the small businesses in my community know what we do, have access to our tools and services, and a real opportunity to grow and scale their businesses.”
In moving to the Delaware SBA office, it will mark a welcome return home for Harris, who had been commuting daily to Washington, D.C., where she last worked at the federal Department of Transportation.
She is taking over the office after two years in which thousands of businesses made their first contacts with the SBA through the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that doled out millions to businesses at the height of the pandemic. Harris said she plans to leverage that contact to extend offers about the SBA’s traditional products, like microlending and low-interest 7(a) loans.
“It’s through all of this outreach that we’re doing now that we’re really pushing that message out there to the small business community,” she said.
In particular, Harris said she hopes to identify and contact those businesses that were forced to close permanently during COVID.
“We want to find out where they are and who they are because I believe that entrepreneurs have an entrepreneurial spirit. Just because one business may not have worked out, they don’t just typically walk away,” she said.
Even for those businesses that did survive, the SBA is helping them to retool and rethink their futures in a post-pandemic environment. Harris pointed to The Juice Joint, a women-owned small business that she recently visited in Wilmington’s Riverfront, that is rethinking its business plan after opening during the pandemic.
Harris’ office is doing that through its existing resource partners, including the Women’s Business Center and Small Business Development Center, as well as a new Community Navigator program, where trained resource professionals walk candidates through the administration’s offerings.
She also intends to grow and strengthen the relationships with its lenders, who facilitate the government-backed loans and grew dramatically in number and in workload during the pandemic. She also aims to expand outreach with underrepresented entrepreneurs, and she’s been working with the Delaware Black Chamber of Commerce on new programs.
One of Harris’ specific goals is to expand the number of women-owned small businesses that export their goods. Currently, only about 14% of U.S. exporters are women-owned small businesses.
“We are really looking at how we can expose women-owned small businesses that are ready to compete in a global environment to the tools and resources necessary to actually take the step,” she said.