She Put Her Family First—And Somehow Ended Up Landing a Big D.C. Job

When her husband wanted to leave New York City to follow his dream, Karen Mills, now head of the Small Business Administration, retooled her own

by Amanda Robb
karen mills image
Photograph: Reuters/John Gress/Landov

Karen Mills was a creature of Manhattan. She saw her children off to private schools, burned up Wall Street buying businesses and raised hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital as the cofounder of a private-equity fund. Then, in 2001, her husband, Barry, a partner in a law firm, was offered the presidency of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine—population 14,816. “I’d love to do it,” he told her.

Fair enough. Mills supported his dream but also clung to her own, reverse commuting to her job in New York. “There are 10 flights a day,” she says, with the certitude born of having taken most of them.

But Maine began tugging at Mills. Shortly after the couple and their three sons moved into the college’s 1806 Federal-style president’s house, the naval air station in Brunswick was scheduled for closure. Then-Governor John Baldacci asked Mills for help in keeping the local economy from collapsing.

Mills suggested developing “clusters,” geographic concentrations of interconnected businesses. Two such clusters—boat building and specialty foods— proved especially successful. The plan clicked for Brunswick, and the town clicked for Mills. “This is a place of extraordinary values,” she says now. “Raising a family here has been a gift.”

Mills’s success both on Wall Street and in the Pine Tree State brought her to the attention of the Obama transition-team staffers. After the 2008 election, they approached her about heading the Small Business Administration (SBA).

“I hadn’t had a job interview in 25 years,” Mills recalls. “So I asked, ‘Who is going to be in the room?’ ”

“The president-elect,” a liaison answered.

Mills aced the 40-minute interview, outlining her position that the top priority of the SBA had to be getting capital into the hands of entrepreneurs. (The Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is expected to inject $840 billion into the economy.) But she did make one misstep at the news conference announcing her appointment: She wore her standard New York black suit. “Here’s a tip,” she says. “In Washington, people wear color.”

Mills also has advice for multitaskers: Carry three cell phones, especially if you work for an organization with a history of receiving subpoenas. “I am very careful to do only government work on my government phone,” she says. “Then I have an iPhone, my personal phone. Then I keep an old Motorola flip phone for talking on while I look at one of the other two devices.” 


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First Published Thu, 2012-05-31 15:02

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