New SBA head plans changes at agency; focus now is COVID-19

NEW YORK — The new head of the Small Business Administration says she expects to make changes at the agency that she says will enable it to further help small companies devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an interview with The Associated Press, two days after she was sworn in, Isabella Casillas Guzman said her immediate focus is implementing the small business provisions in the $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package President Joseph Biden signed into law last week.

The country has lost 400,000 businesses since the start of the pandemic, Guzman said, warning that “many more are at risk.”

Guzman expects small business provisions in the rescue package to help, including $10 billion to support state lending to companies, and $100 million for a new program called Community Navigator aimed at giving education and advice to struggling business owners. But, she said, more vaccinations against the coronavirus and the $1,400 stimulus payments millions of Americans are receiving also will ultimately aid business by helping the economy recover.

Those are indirect aid programs. The rescue package also included direct help in the form of additional money for the Paycheck Protection Program and more than $28 billion in grants for restaurants hammered by government-ordered shutdowns during the virus outbreak.

Guzman already knows how the SBA operates, having been a deputy chief of staff at the agency during the Obama administration.

“We’ll be looking at our overall programs to see a path forward for small businesses,” she said. Guzman acknowledged that the SBA’s role has changed dramatically as a result of the pandemic; she said the agency has gotten attention it never had in the past.

The SBA’s lending focus over the past year has been the PPP, which has approved nearly 8 million loans worth more than $700 billion. Before the pandemic, the agency’s main lending vehicles were its 7(a) and 504 programs that owners turned to for loans to start and build their businesses. Those traditional lending programs may see some changes, Guzman said.

The administrator’s agenda also includes improving SBA technology to make it more accessible to businesses; she noted that many businesses adopted or upgraded their technology in order to survive the virus outbreak.

“We just need to ensure that we’ve modernized the SBA,” she said.

The SBA plans to use Community Navigator to gather information to help it determine what changes it needs to make, Guzman said. The program is aimed at working with community financial institutions and SBA-sponsored Small Business Development Centers to help struggling and disadvantaged businesses.

“That will provide us with a strong feedback loop from small businesses about what their needs are,” Guzman said.

Before coming to the SBA, Guzman also served as director of California’s Office of the Small Business Advocate. She has held positions at companies including ProAmerica Bank, a commercial bank in California, and GovContractPros, a consulting firm based in Chevy Chase, Maryland, that she co-founded.