Ashley Bell, A New Day @ the SBA
Updated: Oct 5, 2018
He enters rooms with the ease and presence usually reserved for clergy of the highest calling. He’s confident and self-assured, and you had better be as well because you’re on the clock.
Who is Ashley Bell?
His name is Ashley Bell. Born and raised in Gainsville Georgia, Ashley Bell is no stranger to the struggles of the working class. During segment two of our sit down interview with Mr. Bell, he reflects on how and why he decided to become an entrepreneur. His father worked for a global fortune 500 that suddenly moved to Mexico. A young Ashley watched his 45-year-old educated father with an MBA struggle to find work. Here was a man that was forced to reinvent himself at age 45. Ashley drew both inspiration and determination from this experience and decided he would be the master of his destiny and the only way to do that was to be an entrepreneur.
Fueled by his father’s strength and pride Bell quickly began making a name for himself by becoming president of the Student Government Association at his Alma matter; Valdosta State University where he also founded the local chapter of the Iota Phi Theta fraternity. After graduating Valdosta State University, Bell continued his education graduating with a J.D. from Louisiana State University and later attending Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government where he was a 21st Century Leadership Fellow. Bell also holds an honorary doctorate in Intercultural and Urban Studies from Lighthouse College.
Making His Way
While in Law School Bell became the youngest county commissioner elected to serve in Hall County Georgia. He followed up that appointment by becoming a local public defender and later trial attorney when he launched his law firm Bell & Washington LLP, based in Atlanta, Georgia with offices in several states across America. In addition to his law firm, Bell sits as founder director of two NPO’s Generation Inspiration and 20/20 Leaders of America.
The Road to SBA
Following his role as Associate Director for External Affairs for the Peace Corps in 2017 Bell was launched into National Prominence when he became President Trump’s first minority appointee to the U.S. Small Business Administration in 2018. As administrator for Region IV, Bell oversees operations of the SBA in eight states – Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
How Did He Get Here?
Bell recalls receiving a call from former National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer in 2016. The call was an offer for Bell to work on the Trump campaign to help with African-American outreach efforts. What was supposed to be a three-month stint turned into something very different once Trump won the election? All of a sudden, Bell, a former Democrat found himself on the president’s transition team.
“It’s funny when you think about it. I had taken a leave of absence from my law practice in Atlanta to work on the campaign,” Bell recalled. “It was supposed to be a temporary job, but then we won the election, and here I am.”
During a recent interview, UPDTV and Urban Pulse Direct co-founder Stacey Clarke were able to gather some amazing insight into Mr. Ashley Bell’s plans to reinvent and rejuvenate the SBA. Here a few nuggets from our conversation
Stacey. Let me start by saying Congratulations.
Ashley. Well, I appreciate that. This is an incredible opportunity; I was humbled when the President asked me to serve in this capacity. This is a region which I know so much about having spent my time as a lawyer traveling this region working with private sector businesses on how to grow and expand in the industries that therein is a great fit for me.
Stacey. Well, you know something about your audience, being an entrepreneur yourself; you started young.
Ashley. Like many of the people who are following us today, if you want to be able to control your destiny, if you want to be able to pick where you worked, be your boss, that’s why I became an entrepreneur. Now, I could take control of my destiny by going back to hometown, start a business there and hire the people in my community.
Stacey. Not only do you have a law practice, but you also have two other businesses as well, right?
Ashley. My law firm is over ten years old now, we’re in several states, and I took leave from the firm to this full time for the administration helping to build out the small business administration’s efforts here in the South East. I have two non-profits that are dear to my heart. What makes business owners so special is that in every community, business owners are not just there to pick up a check rather, they're usually your basketball coaches, there on the board of the boys and girls club, they’ll either be a part of a nonprofit or maybe even start one because they invest in the community, and I think that’s what makes small businesses so important to communities we serve.
Stacey. It’s very difficult to start a business and then stay in business, what advice do you have for entrepreneurs to help them stay in business?
Ashley. I think what’s unique about this time at SBA is that we’re surrounded by so many people who’ve been in the real marketplace. I have been an entrepreneur since 22, my administrator who was appointed by the president Linda McMahon. Many people know her from WWE.
As a kid, I would watch Hulk Hogan vs. The Ultimate Warrior, and it’s just crazy that 30 years later, I’m working for her. She’s the first to tell you that the WWE wasn’t always what we know it to be. At one point, it went bankrupt; she lost her home in foreclosure, she watched her car get repossessed. But she sat with her husband and said tomorrow; we’ll start again. I think many of our small business owners can appreciate the fact that for the first time in 25 years we have a small business administrator who was a small business owner, who has failed and succeeded and knows the trials and tribulations and what it takes to be successful. So, to stay in business is a big part of why SBA is here. We help people to have that continuity so that through good times, bad times, disasters and success, we can be sure we’re helping you plan for the future.
Stacey.Let’s talk about what some of those SBA resources are.
Ashley. Let’s start with people who are thinking of starting a business. I think every statistic will show you that, the longer you take planning the beginning of your business, the longer you will probably be in business. So, the preparation phase is important. You must know exactly what you need, make sure you’re offering something the marketplace wants and that you can be successful with the clientele you’re looking for. Do they have the ability to pay for the services you’re offering? One of our key partners is SCORE. SCORE is dedicated to our start-ups. They’re the people you go to with your idea. They help you put your idea on paper in the form of a business plan that you may want to propose to potential investors to access to capital to start your dream. That’s the first part. Now, once you’re in business and you’re rolling, we have what are called small business development centers known as SBDC’s. They’re usually attached to community colleges around the state. They’re the people who can help you figure out, how to stay in business once you’ve started your business and how to maintain that level of success. AND IT’S A FREE SERVICE! Let me clarify; it’s not free, you’ve already paid taxes on it so you may as well get your money’s worth.
Stacey. Many people are afraid to walk into these places because they don’t know if there will be a large ticket at the end, so it’s important that they understand the services are prepaid right?
Ashley. That’s very important. The SBDC’s (Small Business Development Centers) are critical because they are there to help you know what you don’t know. I think, for everyone who wants to go into business, yes, you know the service you want to provide, yes you have a great idea, but you don’t know what you don’t know about business. I’m a lawyer; I had to build my law practice. Nowhere in law school did they tell me how to build my law practice. They taught me how to practice law. Many of our biggest success stories are people without MBA’s, but once big enough, they can hire someone with an MBA. The mistakes you will make by not knowing the critical steps to start a business will cost you money. That bottom line is someone you could have hired to help with your accounting, marketing or just money you could have put away in a rainy-day fund. We can help you alleviate those mistakes and save you money so that you can continue to be on the right track. Our SBDC’s will pair you up with mentors who have done what you’ve done, who are in your same sector, whose job it is to give back and help you make it and I think that’s a great service offered by our SBDC’s.
Stacey. So, the small businesses in the South East Region are in good hands?
Ashley. I believe that if you are out there and you want to control your faith, and you want to work for it then SBA needs to be a part of your story. Not only do we offer to counsel, but we also offer access to capital. People may think that getting a loan through SBA is too difficult or it takes a long time… at one point, that may have been true, but we’re in a new day now. If you go to our lender match program online, you can fill out the application to see what your business qualifies for. You may see several banks pop up immediately that you qualify for but let’s say nothing shows up initially, that means we need to get you ready for access to capital. That’s where our SBDC will help you write your business plan in a way where Banks will be more able to accept it. Remember, the Banks want to lend you money when you work with us because we guarantee a portion of it. So, we help the Banks out. When you go to the bank, and you qualify for SBA’s guidelines, the banks will say, if SBA is willing to guarantee 75 or 85% of the loan, I’m more likely to issue this money out. So, please, take advantage of those programs. We can help you get to the point where the banks can say yes, our job is to get you to yes. You must be patient, and you must be willing to work for it.
Stacey. So, it’s a process, right? If you want to grow your business and be sustainable in the marketplace, then you must be willing to do what you have to do to get access to capital.
Ashley. Yes, and I’ll talk about something else that I’ve been working on. It’s a goal of mine in this region. We have a micro lending program. Our micro lending programs are often partnered with nonprofits, and this is something that many people don’t know about. Access to capital is so important’, we need to get more access points in our community. If you have a small nonprofit and you want to get into to micro lending, the SBA can work with you. If you’re a nonprofit and you can show a year of issuing successful revolving lending SBA will help you figure out how to get your system in place to do it. After that year, SBA will match what you have and sometimes give up to two to three times what you have to lend to the people in your community.
Stacey. I’d like to talk about some of your accomplishments. I think it’s important for people to know some of your background.
Ashley. One of the best jobs, I’ve ever had. I loved the peace corp. The Peace Corps is known for their work in tough places. We have a lot of returned Peace Corps volunteers that now work for the SBA, and that’s fantastic, being an organization of people who know service at that level. I’ve worked with many village savings and loans banks in Africa and the Caribbean and can tell you that access to capital is a problem around the world and I’m glad I’m in a position to continue to offer those special opportunities.
Stacey. I’m glad you mentioned that. Being in this region, South Florida specifically, there are so many people who are now here who may have had businesses in the country of their birth but are now finding it difficult to do the same here with all the laws, rules and procedures, it’s good to know they now have someone in their region who gets it.
Ashley. Absolutely! We live in a great country with great opportunities but there are a lot of rules, and they’re hard for people who have been here forever yet alone for people who just got here. So, what we have to do is do everything possible to make sure language is not a barrier and make sure that you feel comfortable walking into any federal government building because if you’re paying taxes, this is your federal government. You should be able to talk to people there in whatever language is appropriate for you. We have the staff to do it; we need to be reaching out to you, speaking your language. Nelson Mandela said it best. “If you reach out to a man in his language, you’ll reach his heart and not just his mind.” I think, if people have a heart for business and a heart for creating opportunities, we should be in the business of helping them. Our office is doing a better job every day of listening and learning. SBA employees know a lot about SBA but not necessarily all of them are business owners. I want to make sure that we’re listening to these small business owners in these communities and that our products and services are relevant, and you have access to that relevant information.
Stacey. So, it sounds as if you’re setting some goals for yourself here. What are your mission and your vision for the SBA moving forward?
Ashley. Coming from my background, I know this region well. I can tell you that there is no such thing as a national economy or even a regional economy. If you look at the housing crisis, what happened in Florida was bell weather for what would happen with the rest of the country. Not everyone feels the economic effects of what’s happening at the same time. So, it’s important that the South Florida region be responsible to the South Florida economy. For me, it’s important that our staff embrace the diversity of this region and what we’re doing to serve the different populations better. So that’s a big goal for South Florida but also, as I mentioned, to have more access to capital and to make sure we have more partners who are in the community and can spread the word about the services we offer but are also able to offer people access to capital.
Stacey. Well this brings us to a great success story for the SBA, Mr. Paul Morrow. He was the 2017 small business person of the year for the South East Region.
Ashley. With Mr. Morrow's story, he can tell it better than most, but I think what you should take away from his story is one of absolute resilience. I think that anytime you hear a story of someone who had successes, but suffered a setback yet, was able to get back up and build bigger and better than where he started is great. We’re glad to say that SBA was a part of that story. When you have someone who’s that talented and that determined all I can do is be there to offer them the tools to build the dream they're trying to build.
Stacey. And boy did he build it!
Ashley. Exactly! And that’s a great example of what we’re trying to do. We’ve got a lot of folks who are chasing dreams and some people who are building magnificent enterprises, and he’s one of the great stories in our Country.
Stacey. Joining us here is Mr. Paul Morrow, owner of SDAC, SBA’s 2017 small business person of the year for the state of Florida.
Ashley. I want to say, on behalf of SBA and the region that we’re proud of what you’ve accomplished. What you’ve done in Florida, Alabama and across our region is amazing. You are a success story worthy of all the accolades that you’ve received. Anything that we can do to continue to work with you, we’re excited about, and we’re looking forward to having you as one of our mentors helping other business out to do what you’ve done, and that’s being a trailblazer in our community.
For more on our interview with Mr. Ashley Bell and Paul Morrow subscribe to our YouTube channel at UPDTV.