When Ashley Bell got a call from former Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and former RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer in 2016 with an invitation to work on the Trump campaign, he moved to Washington, D.C., for what was supposed to be a three-month stint to help with African-American outreach efforts. But when Donald Trump won the election, Bell, a former Democrat, found himself on the president’s transition team responsible for recruiting new staff to the State Department.
“I had taken a leave of absence from my law practice in Atlanta to work on the campaign,” Bell said. “It was going to be a temporary job, but then we won the election and here I am.”
After a brief stint as the Associate Director for External Affairs for the Peace Corps in 2017, Bell became President Trump’s first minority appointee to the U.S. Small Business Administration in 2018. Bell was named administrator for Region IV, which encompasses seven states besides Florida — Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Bell, who hails from rural Gainesville, Georgia, is embracing his role.
The Miami Herald interviewed Bell at the SBA’s South Florida District Office in April about his new job and what it means for small business owners locally. These are excerpts from that conversation.
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Q. What is your does your role as regional administrator mean for the average small business owner in the regions you’re responsible for?
A. What it means to them, and what it should mean to them, is the point where my work begins and ends. I think many people still think the SBA is an association or they view us as a last resort for small businesses looking for loans. And I think for many people, there’s a perception that it’s the place where mom-and-pop shops go to get help. But we’re not just about loans, and I think part of changing that perception is a rebranding effort that the SBA has undertaken.
We have a new logo and will be rolling it out during National Small Business Week [which is this week, April 29-May 5]. Along with a rebranding effort, our job is to help people understand who we are. To a small business owner, I think the SBA should be a resource and a partner, from the time there’s a concept for a business to the time that it becomes a reality. In my role, I want to make sure entrepreneurs understand that we are here for them and the SBA wants to do its part to make their dreams and business goals more attainable.
Q. Florida is home to a large rural population - over 700k in 2016 - according to the USDA and 25% of that population is in South Florida. What is the SBA doing to help farmers and other small business owners in rural areas?
A. You know, in the U.S., rural economies are the backbone of our agriculture base. But they are also places that unfortunately, in the last 20 years, have had to reinvent themselves much like the town where I’m from. Gainesville, Georgia is an old mill town. When the textile mills went overseas in the 90s, the town had to reinvent itself and adapt. A big part of helping these rural communities thrive, is the SBA educating business owners about ways they can stay where they are and still thrive economically.
The sole reason I became an entrepreneur in 2004 was because I wanted to be able to move back home, to Gainesville, Georgia and to be able to have a job. I didn’t want to have to run into the same fate my father did where, at 45 years old, he got laid off and had to try and figure out whether to move the family from the town where we had been living for a long time to some place new. People from rural areas love their communities and want to stay there. Not everyone wants to run off to the city!
Additionally, I really think the future of rural areas depends on the youth. The SBA can play a part in that by tapping into the unique traits of the tech-savvy millennial generation. We can show young entrepreneurs how to and use technology to drive business and create jobs in rural communities.
We want to introduce the SBA to the youth in rural areas while they are still in high school, letting them know that we have the resources in the community to help them succeed. For example, we have Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) located near rural areas throughout the United States that can show a young entrepreneur how to get started helping their local economy.
Another major way to help rural entrepreneurs is Opportunity Zones. The President’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act created Opportunity Zones to spur investment in distressed communities in 18 states throughout the country. These Opportunity Zones will be a big catalyst for private sector investment in rural and impoverished areas.
Q. How is tax reform affecting small business owners? What are small business owners telling you?
A. I can tell you, especially here in South Florida, every time I meet with small business owners, I hear that this is the most confidence they’ve have had in the economy in a long time. That confidence is based on them being able to make decisions they couldn’t make three years ago. Those decisions are based on the fact that they’re going to have more money in their pockets.
Because of tax reform, they have more money in their companies to be able to reinvest in their employees, buy more equipment and to do the things that are necessary to increase revenue. For the small business owners who have been looking for this sort of environment to where they have access to capital and cash, I think this will spur more job creation and economic growth.
I also think that our nation’s small businesses understand that is the marketplace to invest, to grow, to hire more people and to allocate resources where its most appropriate. That is going to continue helping the economy grow and making unemployment shrink.
Q. The Trump administration has touted its record on regulatory reform. What would you say is the most significant regulatory reform for small business owners that has been enacted to date?
A. Well, I’d say that to date, the biggest one is going to be tax reform. Small businesses were spending a large amount of resources just to keep up with the tax code. The biggest goal of the tax code was to simplify it and make it less burdensome for businesses and to a small business owner that means you have to hire less people to keep up with the tax code. The goal is to have a tax law that is easy to understand, doesn’t require as many accountants and makes it easier for the small business owner to make very good decisions about the things that effect their bottom line. So, I’d say the biggest regulatory reform has been tax reform and hopefully this year, we will see small businesses spending less money preparing their taxes.
Q. When you’re out talking to small business owners, what are they telling you about the challenges they face today?
A. I think the biggest challenge, especially for those in agriculture and exports, is regulation. They feel like current regulations are too burdensome. But I do think that depends on the sector the business is in. For example, if you’re in agriculture or exports and have to work with the Environmental Protection Agency or the U.S Department of Agriculture, there will be a lot of regulation.
I do think that across the board, small business owners feel like they need to have eight people just focused on complying with regulations. For a small business, hiring eight people, that are not tied to revenue, just to comply with regulations is a lot. To help ease that burden, the Trump has been focused on continuing deregulation. Going forward, you’ll see a lot more of that.
For those small business owners who are not in the agriculture or export industries, another challenge is the workforce. They need to find the right people for the right jobs and that’s been a big challenge. For the SBA, we’re working on ways to be supportive and help with that challenge through retraining and other programs. It’s hard to find good people. That’s both a blessing and sometimes a curse!
Q. The U.S. Census reports that minorities will be the majority by 2020. In South Florida, Census data shows that about 65 percent of the people who came to South Florida in the past five years have come from other countries. Given these demographics, what is the SBA and the Trump administration doing to help minority-owned businesses?
A. I think that I’m very sensitive to the SBA’s ability to reach all communities, especially here in South Florida during this time of transition for the SBA. We don’t have a permanent director in South Florida yet, so that’s part of why I’m here, to make sure we find someone who understands the region and what small business owners go through. I believe it’s going to be imperative that we have leadership here locally that is comfortable in all parts of this diverse region.
In terms of outreach to minority business owners, the goal for the SBA is to remove as many barriers as possible for them. To do that, we want to make sure that our products and services can be communicated with clarity. If you’re an entrepreneur pursuing your best life and your best dream, we want the SBA can be part of that. There shouldn’t be a language barrier that is prohibitive of that. And where you’re from shouldn’t be prohibitive of that.
In terms of minority lending, when you look specifically here at what’s happening in South Florida, you’ll find that SBA lending to African-American owned businesses here is up 54 percent in the last year. We’re working hard to make sure that every entrepreneur has access to tools, products and services they need to succeed.
Q. Are there any SBA programs that you can tell me about that are geared specifically towards minority entrepreneurs?
A. I think our 8(a) Program is one that has been the very cornerstone of the middle class in this country for minorities. If you look at the areas of the country where we have the highest minority populations, they are also the areas where we have the highest concentration of 8(a) company populations. Those 8(a) firms are owned by women and minorities and have been strategically a part of competing for federal dollars.
The U.S. government is the largest purchaser of goods and services. They spend over $500 billion each year and through our 8(a) Program, we want to make sure that 23 percent of that goes to small business. The federal government buys a little bit of everything, why not buy from you? If you’ve ever found yourself asking that question, get in contact with our 8(a) folks and let us help you.
Q. Small business owners frequently complain about the difficulty associated with accessing capital. What has the SBA and the Trump administration done or is currently doing to make the process easier?
A. We can look at that question a couple of different ways. First, our existing loan programs, like the 504 and 7 (a) are tried and true. We’ve done our best to modernize these programs to meet the needs of small business owners. I think ten years ago, it was an intimidating process to a lot of people. We’ve tried to make it much more user-friendly.
We also have Lender Match, a new program online, which is basically our version of LendingTree. Business owners can go online, enter their information and have banks compete to give them SBA loans. The program is for people who are ready to go into the marketplace to grow. But let’s say that you’re not ready to go into the marketplace just yet. You don’t you’re your paperwork and you’re not ready to apply for an SBA loan. We will work with you to show you what you need to do to get ready. We will help you get your business plan together so that you can compete for access to capital.
Another big priority for me is microlending. I want to work on creating more access points for microlending. We also have nonprofit lending, which is also a priority. I think that we haven’t taken advantage of this enough. If you’re a nonprofit and you’re in the business of making loans to the community for a year, the SBA can partner with you to help you get matching funds and give you resources to lend out more money in your community. This is important because whether you’re the local Hispanic chamber or 100 Black Men of South Florida, the nonprofit community can play an integral part in economic growth. Also, oftentimes, local non-profits have less restrictions on lending, so it’s easier for small businesses to work with them.
Q. South Florida is considered the gateway to Latin America because of its location, demographics, and international business. What role has the SBA played in helping entrepreneurs enter the international marketplace?
A. The SBA has great resources to help small businesses get into the international marketplace. Businesses that export products to increase their revenue can take advantage of our Office of International Trade in Washington, D.C., where our specialists work to help small businesses prepare to compete in the global marketplace. We also have our Export Express program, where lenders can directly underwrite a loan without getting approval from the SBA beforehand. This gives small businesses access to capital, up to $500k, quickly.
For businesses in international trade, they can take advantage of a working capital loan program that has a quick turnaround time and access to up to $5M. Helping business get access and be competitive globally is one of big priorities at the SBA.
There is a lot of international investment in real estate here and the construction industry is thriving. But one of the barriers for construction-related, smaller firms is bonding. Often, without the proper bonding, small business can’t compete for contracts against the big guys. We have a program to help small businesses get the bonding they need to be competitive and win contracts. On our website we have information about how to take advantage of these resources.
Q. The SBA recently held its 2018 District and State of Florida Small Business Week Awards and several South Florida businesses received honors. Tell me more about that.
A. Yes, we had quite a few winners from South Florida this year. Our Community Partner of the Year for both the state and the South Florida district is the Miami Bayside Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works advocating for small business owners. Our Small Business Advocate of the Year, Emineo Media, is also a Miami-based business. Young Entrepreneur Small Business Person of the Year, statewide and locally in the District was Lulu’s Nitrogen Ice Cream, located in Miami. The owner of Miami-based Alta Quality Builders, Moises Montañez, won the Veteran-Owned Small Business Person of the Year. And the Woman-Owned Small Business Person of the Year districtwide was Karen Viera, owner of The Med Writers in West Palm Beach.
Q. For businesses in South Florida, how can they access SBA resources locally?
A. Through our South Florida District office here in Miami, the SBA gives businesses the opportunity to access resources like loans, training and counseling, among others. If you’re interested in exporting you can connect with the U.S Export Assistance center, which is in Miami. In Delray Beach, we have the Florida Women’s Business Center, which we sponsor. No matter what stage of business you may be in, the SBA is here to help. Being an entrepreneur isn’t easy, but the SBA can help you navigate the road to success.
Follow Tasha @advocatebrands on Twitter.
ASHLEY D. BELL
Position: Region IV Administrator, U.S. Small Business Administration
Experience: Bell has a wealth of experience beginning as an entrepreneur himself while in law school at the young age of 22. At 27, he became the youngest county commissioner elected to serve in Hall County, Georgia. A lawyer by trade, Bell began his career as a public defender and went on to become trial attorney and co-founder of the law firm Bell & Washington LLP, based in Atlanta, Georgia. Most recently, Bell served as associate director for external affairs for the U.S. Peace Corps and special assistant at the Public Affairs Bureau of the United States Department of State. During the Trump transition, he served as communications and intergovernmental affairs lead on the landing team at the State Department. Prior to the 2016 election, Bell was a senior strategist at the Republican National Committee and the national director of African-American engagement for the RNC. Bell has been a delegate to both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
Education: Bell is a graduate of Valdosta State University. He obtained his law degree from Louisiana State University and was a 21st Century Leadership Fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He has an honorary doctorate in Intercultural and Urban Studies from Lighthouse College.
Personal: Bell was born, raised and currently resides in Gainesville, Georgia with his wife, Lauren, and their three children.
Community involvement: Growing up in a neighborhood where many of his peers saw incarceration instead of college, Ashley founded the 2020 Bi-Partisan Justice Center. He is also the founder of Generation Inspiration. The mission of the organization is to teach life skills, not taught in the classroom, to at-risk students in Bell’s hometown of Gainesville, Georgia.