This post is the first in a series of interviews with individuals who are leading the charge into the new economy. For more on this topic, check out our previous feature.
Hi, Brittany! We’re so glad you could join us today. To get started, will you tell me about your role at the SBA?
My role at the SBA is a really exciting corner of the agency, because I’m in an office that focuses on providing support to startups building out new technologies. We work with other federal agencies funding breakthrough ideas that really impact the fabric of lives around the country. And that includes everything from health to energy, to space and defense, to education and even beyond.
It’s difficult to be a startup—especially for folks coming from a technical or research background. I’m really passionate about figuring out who the people, networks, and institutions are that can enable companies to succeed when they have great ideas. I oversee our “innovation ecosystem,” the network of entrepreneurial support organizations that guide applicants looking for R&D funding through the SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) program, particularly those innovators from underserved communities.
Not all the companies we interact with are eligible for SBIR funding, but some of our SBA prize and grant funding programs relate to broader ESOs in the innovation space. I try to build better connections between organizations at the state level, nonprofits, federal economic development partners, science and research institutions, and incubator/accelerator networks. So it’s fun—I sit at the crux of a lot of things going on related to getting innovations from the lab to the marketplace. And as we emerge from the current economic crisis, we’re turning even more to America’s innovators to help us rebuild and reimagine our future economy.
That’s so interesting! How did you get into that work?
I’ve always been interested in small businesses in general. In college, I double majored in Spanish and Business Administration, and my first job was at a microloan agency in Florida (ACCION). I worked with really small businesses there—mostly companies still trying to build credit and get their first customer.
I loved seeing how small business played a role in the fabric of the community, so I ended up pursuing a master’s degree in community economic development and completed a Peace Corps Volunteer experience in Guatemala exploring economic development and conservation.
Once I moved back to the states, a friend sent me a job listing for a SBA district office position in Fargo, and they were specifically looking for a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. I ended up taking that job and spent a few years doing SBA field work. It exposed me to so much on the ground with different community organizations working together with local universities and state organizations, all interested in supporting entrepreneurship. That’s where I learned about CO.STARTERS! I volunteered as a trainer and helped facilitate the program in its early years in Fargo.
I spent three years in the Midwest, but it became clear there was more I wanted to do at SBA beyond the district office - particularly broadening my experience working with different sectors of small business development. It turned out that the Office of Innovation and Technology, where I currently work, was looking for someone interconnected with the more regional small business development networks to bring them into the federal lab to market ecosystem. They had a need for someone who understood federal technology-based economic development programs as well as the work of broader ecosystem builders—someone who could pull out best practices and also fund work that would increase participation in SBA innovation programs from underrepresented communities across the country.
That sounded like a great challenge, so I joined the team and I’ve been in D.C. ever since!
You mentioned that you facilitated a CO.STARTERS program. How did you see CO.STARTERS impact the local community?
Fargo prides itself on being a place where all entrepreneurs can get the support they need. It was fertile ground for something like CO.STARTERS, and the great thing about CO.STARTERS is the flexible structure. It centralizes many of the resources that people normally have to look for in multiple places. Coming out of 1 Million Cups or Startup Weekend, many new entrepreneurs could get really lost or drown in information overload.
CO.STARTERS proceeds in a really simple way that isn’t prescriptive. It gives you the space to move forward, and many people need that room to work through their ideas, instead of just going to a two-hour seminar. Ideas often shift over the course of the CO.STARTERS program. If you aren’t given the right space to shape your idea and change it as you examine your assumptions, you have a much higher chance of drowning your savings in a business that won’t get off the ground, or that you won’t enjoy. CO.STARTERS helps guide you through those shifts and potential new opportunities.
It seems like you’ve really worked with small business development at every level, from microloans to national projects. How does your experience working in all those stages inform what you do at the federal level?
I think the number one thing about having such varied experiences is learning to see the world through many different perspectives or lenses. When I’m working with federal agencies or policymakers on proposed changes to our programs, it’s easy for me not only to relate to the smaller organizations who will be impacted, but also to anticipate some of the larger complications from timing or funding shifts. It becomes second nature to see the bigger picture and the ripple effects that either bring us closer or further away from our goals.
I try to draw on my experiences to help SBA make strategic decisions, whether that’s through focus groups, evaluations, or pilot programs. It would be harder for me to see the opportunities for collaboration or positive change—especially as I work with other federal economic development programs—if I didn’t have such deep relationships with economic developers and ecosystem builders across the country.
"I always have one question for communities: do people have a place for their ideas to move?... Ideas die short when the environment is too risky and it’s hard to try things out. People are more willing to experiment when the risk is lower, and it really takes a village to make that happen."
- Brittany Sickler, Senior Innovation Policy Advisor at the SBA
I’m curious. You mentioned the importance of innovation earlier. How do you define innovation in a small business context? What does it look like when it plays out?
From SBA’s vantage point coordinating across the SBIR program, innovation is often a significant advancement in a new area that will have a positive impact—whether that’s a new sustainable material or a breakthrough way to explore space, it could be a brand-new treatment or a surprising approach to clean energy. While there are many definitions, they often center around a larger leap in technological capability.
Since it was founded in 1982, SBIR has delivered billions of dollars in capital to small innovators and supported the work of hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers and other innovators. As we begin to imagine our post-COVID economy, the SBIR program will play a crucial role in ensuring the creation of products and services that will have an impact in areas such as healthcare, defense, food security, cybersecurity and more.
The SBIR and related Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs are growing along with the larger federal R&D budgets. These days they’re over $4 billion a year in seed funding—roughly 7,000 awards for small companies. And those aren’t loans, they’re all grants or contracts where no equity is taken. Only small businesses are eligible, though of course, some small businesses are larger than others. But a business doesn’t need to be huge to be competitive in this space. The average company that receives funding from the SBIR/STTR agencies has around eight employees.
A lot of communities want to focus their efforts on cultivating high growth businesses or recruiting big business. What might they miss out on by neglecting to also cultivate small business, the companies with teams of eight?
Anytime that you’re looking for one large solution, you’re at huge risk of ignoring the needs of everything else going on.
If you’re only focused on how to bring in a large company or attract one industry, that hyperfocus often comes at the expense of the community equilibrium. On a community level, small businesses are the fabric of the community. They define what it’s like to actually live day to day in that place—what goods and services are accessible to people who live there.
You need higher-paying jobs to be able to support the smaller businesses, but the day-to-day industries that people rely on shouldn’t be ignored when compared with some of the new breakthroughs we may see on the tech side.
Why do you think cities focus on tech and innovation instead of Main Street? Do Main Street businesses ever lead to breakthrough innovations?
People get swept up in what sounds exciting! High growth and tech startups have fascinating stories. But it definitely shouldn’t come at the expense of main street businesses.
A lot of ideas we would categorize as innovation come from pain points in the lived community. Many ideas that have been funded through SBIR started with an entrepreneur who lacked technical expertise, but whose idea came from real experience. Someone who recognizes needs and can recruit other people has a leg up on competitors. That entrepreneur can be the driving force behind the business, simply because they know the need is there from their personal experience in a local community.
Network collision is also necessary. Building communities where people in different industries can connect and interact is important. It’s worth noting that COVID has really impacted the networking and connecting abilities of local communities. While keeping our new, flexible virtual tools, hopefully we can also get places like coffee shops, coworking spaces, and more back up and running as serendipitous meeting places.
What are the elements of a vibrant community that breeds innovation? What does a community look like when it’s doing it right?
I always have one question for communities: do people have a place for their ideas to move? Do they have a sounding board, a maker space, a place to build their science and do research, to connect with investors? A community needs to be self-aware, as the most vibrant places are certain of what they have and are good at, and are willing to look externally for help when they need to fill in gaps.
Ideas die short when the environment is too risky and it’s hard to try things out. People are more willing to experiment when the risk is lower, and it really takes a village to make that happen. Great ideas come from anywhere and everywhere. Supporting all our nation’s innovative startups and increasing equitable access to federal research funding is a priority for us at the SBA, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it will build a stronger future for all of us.