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Commerce's Innovation Exec Seeks to Hire Entrepreneurs

Economic development coach offers help to small businesses as survey shows most common contractor mistakes.

The chief of innovation in the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration wants to bring more entrepreneurs into government, perhaps as two-year fellows, she said on Wednesday.

“There is lots of entrepreneurial thinking in government—it’s surprising,” Julie Lenzer Kirk, director of Commerce’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, told small business owners at a conference of the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council. But she added that when she ran the state of Maryland’s Center for Entrepreneurship, “I would tell business people, ‘You’re my tribe.’ When I got to government, I’m still trying to fit into the tribe.” 

The EDA’s role, Kirk said in a pep talk to small business contractors titled “It Takes a Village,” is not direct investment like the Small Business Administration, but helping build capacity through partnerships, grants, and tools that bring people together. “Making sure state and local officials understand that small businesses are the job creators is essential,” she added. It’s “connecting the dots” on a regional basis because “what works in Detroit is not what is needed in Atlanta.”

The hierarchy of needs for the innovation EDA is pursuing nationwide begins with basic infrastructure—“roads and commodes,” she said, followed by technological infrastructure (broadband), support for business, engineering innovation and, at the top, a “connected ecosystem.”

That system “needs talent, innovation, support and capital,” Kirk said, describing EDA’s backing of incubators and business accelerators. “People and culture are the mortar that hold it all together,” especially people who are tolerant of risks and open with others. “I can’t help you if you say you can’t tell me your idea unless I sign a nondisclosure form,” she told the business owners. “Lots of people have ideas, the key is execution.”

Asked how she would function if the Obama administration achieves its goal of reorganizing the Commerce Department, the SBA and the U.S. Trade Representative into a single business department, Kirk said, “One of goals is collaboration, to seize any opportunity to pool government resources.” She said she has reached out to SBA and the Energy Department’s green programs, noting, “I personally don’t let organizational boundaries get in the way.”

Separately on the day Kirk spoke, the common mistakes made by small business contractors seeking federal work were highlighted in a survey of agency buyers by the American Express OPEN contractor networking program.

The top shortcoming was not having searched agency needs before an initial meeting, according to 62 percent of the 123 procurement specialists responding to an online survey last August. The second most common mistake was not paying enough attention to proposal details when submitting a first bid, according to 56 percent of respondents.

The best advice for winning a contract is to be specific in the proposal and address all elements of the request for proposals, according to 52 percent of respondents.

The best way to stand out from the crowd of bidding contractors is to prepare a short and informative company capability brief, according to 37 percent of respondents.

Well over half of respondents agreed that small business certifications make companies easier to find in the System for Awards Management database, both for agencies and large contractors seeking subcontractors.

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