The Biden-Harris Administration has committed to rebuilding Main Streets across America in a more equitable way. Part of this effort includes focusing on all types of business owners, including women.
At six months on the job, Natalie Madeira Cofield, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Women’s Business Ownership at the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), provides executive oversight, management, leadership, and championship of female entrepreneurship. A seasoned entrepreneur and executive with over 15 years of experience in securing diverse capital, Natalie oversees the largest expansion of the Women’s Business Center network in the history of the SBA and more than $70 million in federal grant-making to support the growth of women-led firms.
I recently had the fortune of speaking with Assistant Administrator Cofield about her role and her vision for impact as a champion for women in business as the first African American woman to hold this post. Below is a summary of our conversation.
Rhett Buttle: Prior to the Covid-19 Pandemic, women-owned businesses were the fastest growing segment of our economy. Is that still the case?
Assistant Administrator Cofield: Based on anecdotal research, women business owners remain the fastest growing segment of entrepreneurs in the nation and were the primary drivers of entrepreneurship during the pandemic.
Women are increasingly turning to entrepreneurship because it gives them more work-life flexibility, it reduces the strain of being both primary caregivers and employees, and because women are just good at innovating and pivoting, no matter what challenges they may face.
Women of color in particular, are the primary drivers of this entrepreneurial growth – yet they have been denied historically equitable access to resources. Study after study has shown that, Black women and Latina entrepreneurs are the fastest growing segments in the small business community, and, as a nation, we simply can’t afford to leave them behind. This is one reason why it’s so exciting to have an accomplished Latina leading the Small Business Administration
SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman grew up in a small business family and became an entrepreneur herself — she understands what it takes to start and grow a small business. And her track record as California’s small business leader during the early part of the pandemic, as well as her previous service at the SBA, shows she has the skills and expertise we need to lead small businesses out of this economic crisis. Administrator Guzman has made equitable access to SBA’s programs and services her top priority. Building on the Biden-Harris administration’s all-of-government mandate on racial and gender equity, I’m confident that we can accomplish so much for our nation’s women entrepreneurs.
The SBA’s Office of Women’s Business Ownership looks forward to continuing to do more to support the growth of women firms, while also addressing the unique challenges that have precluded women of color entrepreneurs from achieving scale.
Buttle: How does the SBA’s Office of Women’s Business Ownership support aspiring female entrepreneurs and established business owners?
Cofield: Since its founding 33 years ago, the SBA Office of Women’s Business Ownership (OWBO) is the only office within the federal government singularly focused on advancing the agenda of and advocating for women in business.
Our office supports women business ownership in three key ways:
● As a Funder: Providing $70 million in funding to invest in the development and sustainability of Women’s Business Centers — community-based hubs that mentor, train, and empower women to start and grow their own businesses.
● As a Center Network Administrator: Managing the largest women’s business center portfolio in SBA history, with 136 centers across the nation that provide direct one-on-one technical assistance, and financial and business training support for women entrepreneurs. Annually our network supports nearly 60,000 aspiring and existing women entrepreneurs and is responsible for roughly 3,000 new business starts.
● As an Advocate: Serving as an advocate for the priorities and concerns of women business owners, as well as a convener and thought leader on trends in business for women.
Buttle: You will oversee the largest expansion of the Women’s Business Center network in SBA history. Can you describe what that will entail?
Cofield: My appointment came at a pivotal time for our office. Right now, we’re spearheading the onboarding and funding of the largest expansion of Women’s Business Centers in SBA history. We’re distributing and managing a $70 million funding portfolio that includes funds to run the centers and provide additional resources during the pandemic.
We know, however, that funding is not all that our 136 centers need to survive and thrive. Our office has instituted monthly capacity building calls, technical assistance office hours, and training to aid center leaders with their own internal operations.
As we work to improve operational capacity, we are also excited to continue the expansion of our center network. Just this month, we released $600,000 in funding to support center creation in Puerto Rico, Tulsa, OK, Rochester, NY, and look forward to more forthcoming communities across the nation.
Buttle: How has your entrepreneurial and executive experience prepared you for your work at SBA?
Cofield: My career has been colored by my passion and my commitment to advocacy and service, as well as my experience as a national champion for women entrepreneurs.
As a seasoned entrepreneur who grew a business from start-up to million-dollar revenues, I understand firsthand the challenges of starting and scaling a small business. As the founder and former CEO of a national women’s platform, Walker’s Legacy, I know the challenges of funding and providing ongoing and aligned educational support, training, and community for enterprising women. And, as a former Chamber CEO, I understand the challenges of navigating the intersections of public and private sectors to achieve economic outcomes.
My current role represents the culmination of my previous entrepreneurial and executive work, which also allowed me to hit the ground running during this critical time.
Assuming this role under the leadership of the only Latina cabinet member of the Biden-Harris Administration and a true champion of small business, SBA Administrator Isabella Guzman, really confirmed that this was the natural next step for my passion of empowering women and has made my experience in implementing this work so much more rewarding.
Buttle: What are your thoughts on how future technology and digital tools will impact small businesses?
Cofield: If the impact of Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that technology-enabled businesses are positioned for the most operational resilience in moments such as this. And, with President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda’s commitment to deliver broadband to every household, we will need to leverage the fact that small businesses adopted technology at high rates during the pandemic.
Across the SBA, we’re working to help increase technology adaptability for all business types — from brick-and-mortar retailers to manufacturing – and OWBO is a part of that effort.
Covid-19 showed us that, literally, from our kitchen tables, we have the capacity to connect with global marketplaces. Understanding this, we’ve encouraged our Women’s Business Centers to incorporate training to support international business efforts.
Lastly, we are very proud to have launched Ascent, a free e-learning platform to provide tools and resources for enterprising women to grow and scale their businesses.
Buttle: What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs and business owners who are looking to engage with Women’s Business Centers?
Cofield: OWBO has offices in nearly every state in the country. We welcome aspiring and existing entrepreneurs to find a center near them by visiting www.sba.gov.
Buttle: What significance does being the first Black woman to hold this position have for you?
Cofield: As previously mentioned, one of the fastest growing segments of entrepreneurs in the U.S. are Black women. And, Black women comprise nearly 60 percent of all Black-owned firms and 40% of all women-of-color-led-firms. Because of this, I believe that any national conversation or effort designed to support women business owners must include Black women. In my role, I aim to be a voice for all women entrepreneurs, by ensuring that the voices of those often-overlooked- communities are raised.