Karen Mills spent her career in the venture capital world before being enlisted by then-Gov. John Baldacci to help grow jobs in Maine after it was announced in 2005 that the Department of Defense planned to close the Brunswick Naval Air Station.

Mills, who moved to Maine in 2001 when her husband, Barry Mills, took over as president of Bowdoin College, was president of the MMP Group at the time, an investment firm that focused on companies in the consumer products, food, distribution, textile and industrial components sectors.

Mills worked in Maine to develop economic clusters, particularly around the composites industry and boat building, and in 2006 led the successful effort to support a $50 million research and development bond that went before voters.

Her work in Maine, as a thought leader in the U.S. competitiveness discussion and as the author of an important Brookings Institution paper on the federal role in regional economic development clusters, led to her being sworn in on April 6, 2009, as the 23rd administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Last week, the White House announced that President Barack Obama was elevating that position to a Cabinet-level post.

In a recent exclusive interview with the Bangor Daily News, Mills talked about that elevation, how her work in Maine influences her work on a national scale and what she’s hearing from small businesses.

Bangor Daily News: What will we see from the SBA in 2012?

Mills: Right now, in 2012, the economy’s got some momentum, so we see small businesses who have opportunities in front of them, and the first thing they look for is capital. We have had a record year nationally in 2011 [for SBA-backed loans]. Things look very strong again for this year because more and more small businesses have opportunities in front of them and we can provide loan guarantees.

A second thing we are focused on in this year is making sure that businesses have the advice and counseling and mentorship that they need to grow, and we have extensive operations all over Maine — we have 12 Small Business Development Centers and two Women Business Centers and seven chapters of our SCORE operation, which is our one-on-one mentoring organization. When you have a long-term counselor, a small business has more sales and more profit and more longevity.

BDN: How is what you’re hearing from small businesses evolving?

Mills: I came to work here for the president right at the most difficult time of the financial crisis. In October 2008, in the credit crunch, access to capital for small businesses just froze —nobody could get a loan. I would hear from small businesses, ‘I need your help to save my business.’ Now I hear from small businesses, ‘I want to grow my business, I have opportunity to expand, I can buy a piece of equipment, I need the advice and counsel to make the right decision about how to grow, and I need the capital to take on that expansion and to hire more people.’

So we are at a different phase which is very positive for small business, and we are I think showing small businesses that we have changed the paperwork level and increased the ease of doing biz with SBA. We have redone the website so if you come to SBA.gov, and you put in your zip code, you will find the names and phone numbers and access to programs and people that can help you directly add value to your business.

BDN: How will your elevation to President Obama’s Cabinet change how you do your job?

Mills: I have been privileged to really have a seat at the president’s table and have his focus be on small business for the past three years. This is something the president really cares about, I’ve been able to travel with the president, including to the great state of Maine, and talk to small business and others about things that matter to the community. So that will continue, but I’m very honored to be an official member of the Cabinet — it certainly is an important step and we are looking forward to collaborating across the whole administration to make sure that small businesses continue to have the tools they have to drive the economy.

BDN: That elevation comes as part of the president’s move to get congressional approval to reorganize several trade and financial agencies, merging the SBA, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Trade and Development Agency. If that happens, what will happen to the SBA administrator’s role in the Cabinet?

Mills: The president asked for reorganization authority from Congress, so all of this really depends on a congressional mandate back to the president. Having a combined economic agency with augmented small-business activity was one of the examples that he gave. I think what was very clear is the president is not going to let small business come second to any other interests.

BDN: How has your background in Maine influenced your job in D.C.?

Mills: Put it this way — everybody in the White House with whom I work knows that I live in Maine, and it is the most extraordinary place to live and to be part of the community. The values and the experience of understanding Maine businesses that I was able to attain working with the governor and the Legislature on clusters and on the research and development bond and on Maine’s competitiveness are really the foundation stones for many of the things that we’re doing across the country today.

BDN: Using that national perspective, what do you think Maine needs to do to improve its economy?

Mills: Maine has some tremendous assets, and one of the first things I learned in Maine is economic development needs to build on the assets of a place. One of the things Maine has is quality of place, and an extraordinary environment. Quality of place and economic development really go hand-in-hand in Maine — they’re not in conflict.

Building on that, Maine has the ability to be a place of great innovation and entrepreneurship — it has a long heritage of small business and entrepreneurs, and it has some terrific research and development and university science that is spawning many innovative companies.

I point you to the work of the Maine Technology Institute and the research and development bond we were able to put through a number of years ago. That is now bearing fruit in many high-growth small businesses. Maine has an environment where entrepreneurs want to come, to found their business.

In Bowdoinham, FHC makes research and clinical products for neuroscience. They’re a terrific company; they’ve had several SBIR awards. We have Kennebec Technologies, which is an expanding company, and there’s some great manufacturing companies still growing — even a shoe company, Rancourt & Co. Shoecrafters, we gave him an SBA loan.

What I think has made all this possible is a combination of access to capital from things like our SBA banking partners in Maine, and skills training by the community colleges, who have reached out to the Maine community and helped Maine’s terrific work force gain the skills they need to make sure these companies can hire trained and skilled workers and prosper in our state.