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Sporting facial scrapes and a bandage on her left knee, Natalia Olson-Urtecho gingerly lowered herself onto the seat of Amtrak's Northeast Regional train one week ago at 30th Street Station. Her dress hid a thigh bruise that caused her to grimace when she shifted.
Who knew that being a regional administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) was a contact sport? Kidding.
Olson-Urtecho's injuries were from a fall while training for next month's TriRock Philadelphia Triathlon. That the Fitler Square resident was headed two days later to Delaware for a number of visits to small businesses and support agencies when she had plenty of painful excuses not to go speaks to the hands-on style Olson-Urtecho has brought to the government job she was appointed to in September.
"Entrepreneurs need more personal touch because it's extremely difficult. You are alone," explained Olson-Urtecho, 40, having lived the life before the White House came knocking.
Born in Honduras to a Honduran lawyer mother and an American architect father, Olson-Urtecho grew up all over the world. Her father worked for the U.S. State Department on embassy projects in Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico City, and Hungary.
Olson-Urtecho attended college in the United States, earning a bachelor's degree in political science and economics from Northeastern University and a master's degree in city and regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania.
She too worked for the State Department, in Venezuela and Hungary, before returning to Philadelphia in 2005, where she worked in planning jobs before founding a couple of consulting companies focused on clean technology and socially responsible business practices.
Olson-Urtecho's volunteer work in 2011 organizing three urban entrepreneurship forums - in Philadelphia, New York, and New Orleans - cosponsored by the White House prompted the Obama administration to urge her to submit her name for a federal appointment.
She considered the SBA job the most appropriate fit, but "I really thought this was not going to go through. I speak my mind a lot."
In her job interview, she stressed two things: that her interest was more in serving small-business owners than pushing policy, "and I wanted to focus on exporting."
Soon she was heading one of the SBA's most populated territories, the Mid-Atlantic region. It is wearisomely large, especially for the car-less Olson-Urtecho, who gets to her King of Prussia headquarters by SEPTA bus.
SBA Region III comprises all of Pennsylvania, as well as Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Its seven district offices and 100 loan, business, and community-outreach specialists provide technical and financial assistance to small-business owners. In fiscal year 2012, Region III issued 1,800 loans worth more than $670 million. It also oversees $34.2 billion in federal government contracts with local companies.
Those are big numbers but, in Olson-Urtecho's opinion, not big enough, especially in staffing, which was down one-third from prerecession levels when she took over.
Evidently, the case she made to Washington - "If we can't deliver the best consumer service, then we can't fulfill our mission" - was convincing. She got the go-ahead to fill 80 percent of her vacancies.
It made her an instant hero to John Fleming, acting director of the SBA's Delaware district office, which had a staff of three when Olson-Urtecho became Fleming's boss. It now has eight employees, with approval for one more.
Fleming, a 21-year SBA veteran, lauded Olson-Urtecho as "someone who understands the area and market and has a business background."
At the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Small Business Development Center, of which the SBA is a core funder, director M. Therese Flaherty said of Olson-Urtecho's first eight months on the job: "She brings a kind of energy and vision and proactive approach to the position that is unusual." She also praised Olson-Urtecho for fostering collaboration among a number of business-support agencies that has made "efforts that were here amount to more."
Olson-Urtecho's efforts of late have centered on getting her staff trained to use social media to reach those small-business owners who don't have time to attend workshops and panel discussions.
She's also pushing exporting. Olson-Urtecho admits that is intimidating to small companies but, she argues, it's also wise - especially given the federal government's sequestration-related spending restrictions that have cut into many bottom lines.
There's one other must-do on her agenda: learning fly-fishing. She plans to tackle that "one of my days when I'm on my way back from West Virginia."
Diane Mastrull: >Inquirer.com
The SBA's Natalia Olson-Urtecho meets Coleman E. Bye III, president of the Mercantile Press and 2013 Delaware Small-Business Person of the Year. www.inquirer.com/sbaEndText
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