The Assistant Administrator at United States Small Business Administration Office of Women’s Business Ownership.
At the end of 2021, the United States Small Business Administration elevated it’s Office of Women’s Business Ownership to report directly to the Office of SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman, the highest-ranking Latina in President Joe Biden’s cabinet, reaffirming the SBA’s commitment to women entrepreneurs and allowing OWBO to have a direct line to the agency’s leadership to ensure that women small business owners are considered in everything the SBA does. This announcement came after the release of the first-ever National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality commissioned by the Biden-Harris White House outlining objectives and priorities for obtaining equity for women. Under the leadership of SBA OWBO Assistant Administrator Natalie Madeira Cofield, the first African American woman to lead in this position, SBA is on track to have the biggest expansion of its Women’s Business Center network—a network of centers around the country that provide women entrepreneurs with all the assistance they need to not only survive but thrive during these difficult times. Cofield shares more on her role and the work ahead.
What are your responsibilities in your role, what you are looking forward to achieving?
As the Assistant Administrator for the OWBO, I am responsible for overseeing SBA’s network of 140 Women’s Business Centers (WBC), the largest WBC network in the history of SBA and advancing and advocating for women’s entrepreneurship and economic opportunities. Since its founding 34 years ago, OWBO has been 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 ways:
■ As a Funder: Providing $70 million in funding to invest in the development and sustainability of WBCs.
■ As a Center Network Administrator: Managing the largest WBC portfolio in SBA history that provides direct one-on-one technical assistance and financial and business training support for women entrepreneurs. Annually our network supports nearly 90,000 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.
Last year alone, our office increased our center footprint by 24 new centers, including a historic investment in Puerto Rico and our first WBC in Tulsa in the historic greenwood (Black Wall Street) community. I am looking forward to expanding the WBC program to Alaska, the only state currently without a center, and ensuring underserved communities have access to entrepreneurial development resources by implementing WBCs in partnership with Minority Serving Institutions. With these two significant milestones achieved, we will continue to make history for the SBA, our Office, and women entrepreneurs.
You are overseeing the largest expansion of the WBC network in the SBA’s history – what does that entail, what challenges do you foresee?
Managing the largest WBC network requires considerable coordination externally and internally. As the single voice in federal government focused exclusively on women entrepreneurs, my job requires that I advocate for support, resources, and access for the 12 million women-owned small businesses more broadly and our network of centers more specifically. It requires financial and programmatic oversight to ensure the integrity of our program and our grantees to ensure good stewardship of our $70 million in funding. It requires communication and coordination of our resource partners to ensure information and knowledge sharing that will advance their skills and programming, thus improving the way women entrepreneurs are serviced across the nation. And it requires grit and determination to ensure that women have an equitable seat at the table, among many other critical skills in leadership and entrepreneurial knowhow. The biggest challenges our office experiences are:
■ Reaching organizations that are not familiar with applying for federal awards and building their capacity to successfully apply for and manage federal awards. Overcoming this challenge ensures that the communities these organizations serve can access the resources and services they need.
■ Confronting remaining stigmas and challenges that impact how women access resources and opportunities.
I am proud to say that the Biden-Harris Administration and SBA Administrator Guzman both aid in reducing the obstacles through their continued and unwavering championship of women and equality.
How does SBA elevating OWBO to report directly to agency leadership improve the work already accomplished?
For more than 30 years, OWBO has reached hundreds of thousands of women entrepreneurs. Elevating OWBO to report to agency leadership enhances OWBO’s work. It ensures the issue of women’s entrepreneurship has a direct line of communication to the Office of the Administrator, thereby providing the challenges of both our network and women entrepreneurs to be addressed more directly by cabinet-level leadership. As with many diversity and inclusion efforts, offices that find themselves buried often have a more difficult time advocating for resources, supports, access and priorities. Elevation of OWBO says to women, we see you, we hear you, and we are prepared to continue to do more. We have already seen the impact of this elevation on our offices access internally within SBA to our peers and colleagues and our ability to share more about the WBC networks with colleagues and with the streamlining of approvals and increase in focus and resources provided to the office to innovate and excel by Administrator Guzman.
In the past year in your role, what were some major achievements for yourself and OWBO?
During my first year in this role, we were able to make the following incredible achievements:
■ Expanded SBA’s Network of WBCs to 140 centers.
■ Distributed nearly $70 million in funding to support women entrepreneurial centers.
■ Made the largest investment in the women entrepreneurial ecosystems in Puerto Rico with the funding of two new centers.
■ Funded three WBCs affiliated with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, doubling the number of WBCs operating in partnership with HBCUs to six.
■ Funded 14 Resiliency and Recovery Demonstration Projects for a total of $2.7 million to invest in strategies and practices that showed promise in helping women business owners weather the COVID-19 public health emergency.
In addition to these accomplishments, the SBA’s network of WBCs served 88,051 women entrepreneurs, created 3,289 new businesses and $1.4 million capital infusion transactions. By the close of my first year, we will have also established a WBC in every state in the nation. Seven days into my tenure, the American Rescue Plan was signed into law providing $100 million in funding to support ‘Community Navigators.’ I am incredibly proud to have been a major part of designing and framing the Community Navigator program, which provided $100 million in funding to 51 organizations across the country. In total, I have been involved in framing and designing the deployment of nearly $200 million in funding to support women entrepreneurs where they are.
What are some of OWBO’s primary initiatives, how are WBCs assisting with those efforts?
When I first joined the SBA, our primary focus was on ensuring that our WBCs had the knowledge and information needed to support women entrepreneurs in accessing disaster recovery. This is why we also funded an additional $2.7 million for innovative programs that met the needs of women seeking to survive the pandemic. Today, OWBO supports the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to increasing the number of existing businesses, their access to financing and tools to scale, and the percentage of women-owned businesses working with the federal government. Through our WBC network, OWBO is addressing this by working with and requiring each center to provide training entrepreneurship, access to capital, managing growth and scale, and doing business with the federal government. We are also proud to support the ASCENT digital platform, designed to provide women with the online resources to toolkits and information needed to grow, whenever and wherever they are.
As the first African American woman in this position, and working with Administrator Guzman, the highest-ranking Latina in President Biden’s cabinet, what significance does this hold for you?
I know that we make history every day, and I do not take that lightly. It is an honor to raise the voice and the presence of women as a multicultural woman and simultaneously represent through lived experience the fastest growing entrepreneurial segment in the nation—Black women entrepreneurs. This role has afforded me an opportunity to engage with women and communities across the nation and has further opened my eyes to the vast diversity of this nation. Holding this position has been an honor and is among the highlights of my professional career.