The Small Business Development Center in Baltimore had lagged behind other Maryland SBDCs on most fronts, including capital infusion and job creation. The previous director retired in late 2009 and the center needed a fresh face with a smart turnaround plan.
Enter Kiesha Haughton Smoots, the 34-year-old director whose youthful energy and risk-taking edge helped transform the SBDC from one of the state's worst performing to one of the best. Since she came on board, businesses that worked with the SBDC generated $33 million in sales in fiscal 2010, up from $8 million in the year-earlier period.
"I tried to do away with that bureaucratic, it-has-to-be-this-way mindset," says Smoots, who has revamped everything from the way counselors advise businesses ("Focus on your area of expertise and refer to other counselors when necessary.") to how the SBDC reports its performance to the Small Business Administration ("Reach out to past clients and find out if they've hired people—we can report those new jobs.").
Affiliated with the University of Baltimore, the Central Region SBDC covers 40 percent of the businesses in Maryland, including those in Baltimore and its neighboring counties. The area is a hub for government contractors and life sciences companies, among other industries.
Former director Sonia Stockton's legacy was her effort to create a "CEO Accelerator Program," an intensive two-year course that helps businesses pinpoint their weak spots and develop a plan for growth. The program launched last spring under Smoots, though she tweaked it a bit: "Communication between everyone involved needed to flow better," she says, adding that trainers, mentors, and counselors now regularly meet to ensure that "too many hands in the pot don't spoil the brew."
Though the program is still in the pilot phase, participating businesses say they are making progress.
"You're working with people who care about you and care about your company," says Anthie Zairis, co-founder of Group-Z, which develops software for the state of Maryland. "They're coaching us on how to secure a contract with the federal government, which has been an elusive goal."
What's next on the agenda for Smoots? Getting every branch office in the Maryland SBDC network on Facebook and LinkedIn. "We need to roll out more social media channels for our clients," she says. "Not everybody's on board yet, but I think we can make it happen."