Norka Ruiz Bravo

Deputy director for extramural research, National Institutes of Health

Bravo oversees the 85% of the NIH budget that funds biotech research. Last year her office provided $626 million to businesses through the NIH arm of the Small Business Innovation Research program, making NIH the second-largest distributor of SBIR money (behind--far behind--Defense). Under Bravo's direction, say people in the biotech field, NIH's SBIR program has become more willing to take risks on new ventures, and it has improved the grant application process by moving much of the paperwork online.

Elaine Chao

Secretary, Department of Labor

Fans call Labor a model agency with regard to small business. The department's website now has one-stop regulatory shops where business owners can learn about compliance and paperwork, and Chao has hosted a series of "Women's Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century" summits around the country to teach female entrepreneurs about everything from finance to overseas trade. "She's certainly reached out to working women generally and women business owners in particular, even though that's technically not within her portfolio," says Claire Guthrie Gasta–aga, vice president for public policy at the National Association of Women Business Owners.

Deborah Conrad

Senior international credit officer, Small Business Administration

Based in the U.S. Export Assistance Center in Baltimore, Conrad, a former bank executive, works to provide companies with the necessary credit to trade overseas. "Exporting is a steep learning curve," she says. "My job is to help small businesses structure a deal to get it financed."

Conrad, who covers companies located in the mid-Atlantic states for the agency, also encourages lenders to work with small exporters by extending loan guarantees. She says her proudest accomplishment has been negotiating a co-guarantee plan with the Export-Import Bank that allows the SBA to provide higher loan guarantees. Conrad is an "unsung hero," says Trevor Gunn, an international trade expert formerly with the Department of Commerce. "You don't often see the level of commitment and expertise she has."

Maj. Gen. Darryl Scott, USAF

Director, Defense Contract Management Agency, Department of Defense

Defense hasn't enjoyed the best reputation when it comes to small-business procurement, even though it sits on a $980 billion pot of contract money. After several years of declining procurement for small companies, the Pentagon reported that new small-business prime contracts increased 1.2% from 2002 to 2003 (the latest data available), and subcontracts awarded to small businesses increased by 2.9%. Scott, who took over DCMA in 2003, says his goal is to further increase the percentage of contracts awarded to small businesses and to tighten requirements that prime contractors use smaller subcontractors.

Thomas Sullivan

Chief counsel, Office of Advocacy, Small Business Administration

Sullivan's job is to see that the little guy is represented in federal legislation, and then to make sure agencies follow the laws after they're passed. But Sullivan goes beyond the call of duty, running small-business summits around the country and holding regular meetings in Washington of his "kitchen cabinet" of representatives from eight national small-business groups who keep him informed on the community's needs. "I try to meet with anyone who feels as though they need a voice in policy development," he says.

Larry Mocha, president of Air Power Systems, a Tulsa business that makes air controls for truck hydraulics, vouches for Sullivan: "I can call Tom any day or night and he'll take my call."