Friday, Sept. 28, 2007

Power to the businesses

Katie Knowlin has brought her diverse experience to Montgomery County to help its companies flourish

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chris rossi⁄the gazette
Once a fiscal policy specialist for the state Department of Human Resources, Katie Knowlin came to realize early in her career that she needed a grounding in economics while working in redevelopment projects in Baltimore. ‘‘It was like a light bulb for me ... it’s all right to talk about social services but you need to talk about the economics of the situation. This is where the rubber meets the road.”
When Montgomery County officials needed somebody to step up to the plate, they recruited an all-star to oversee their new business empowerment program.

Katie Knowlin, who had won awards and recognition while working for the city of Baltimore, the state Department of Transportation and the Governor’s Office of Minority Affairs, was promoted in July to oversee the county’s new division of business empowerment. The division’s objectives, mandated by new economic development chief Pradeep Ganguly, are to greatly expand the county’s role in assisting small and minority- and women-owned businesses.

Knowlin, 57, was actually brought to Montgomery last year by then-economic development director David W. Edgerley, named this year as secretary of the state Department of Business and Economic Development.

‘‘They wanted to do something differently in Montgomery County,” said Knowlin, a Baltimore resident who commutes daily to her Rockville office. ‘‘The real emphasis on small and minority businesses had not occurred. There were programs in effect, but there was not a comprehensive look at the way small and minority businesses were handled in Montgomery County.”

Thursday, for example, Knowlin, along with County Executive Isiah Leggett and other officials, conducted the county’s first empowerment forum on the needs of the Hispanic business community. The forum followed others for the Chinese-American and South Asian business communities. On Oct. 25, the Department of Economic Development will conduct its first forum for the African-American business community.

‘‘Montgomery County has 40,000 small businesses — that’s 95 percent of all the businesses that are in this county,” said Knowlin, who once ran her own business. ‘‘They are the backbone of this county and they hire the majority of the people, provide the tax revenues, all the things that make the economy run.”

The Business Gazette talked to Knowlin recently about empowering businesses and how her career led her to that specialty.

Regarding the Hispanic business forum, does that community have any specific needs?

I have worked with Hispanic businesses and organizations all over the state [in prior positions] ... and provided seminars specifically for Hispanic businesses, and they had common themes based primarily upon their past experiences in their native country.

They include perceptions such as a fear⁄mistrust of the government in general, and a disbelief that the government would actually help them in their quest to be successful.

Second-generation firms had a different set of issues that were similar to any other business: How can I be competitive and how do I take advantage of business opportunities?

What about the African-American business community? Anything specific you are trying to do there for that community?

African American-owned firms, as with other ethnic groups, have similar problems and some that are quite unique. The majority of African-American businesses in the county are in information technology or the service-related field. One point that has been striking to me is the lack of African American-owned major construction companies in Montgomery County. We do have some construction companies, but not at the level one might expect would exist.

There has been a perception that small and minority companies have had trouble doing business with the county. In cooperation with the Office of Procurement, we are addressing many process and procedural issues that may have served as a hindrance in the past.

These empowerment forums that you started this year — what has been the feedback?

The forums have been highly successful. People feel like we’ve made an effort to talk with them and they feel that that had not happened before. It’s been amazing.

The communities themselves got an opportunity to network, which I found interesting because they’re so busy doing their thing that they didn’t have an opportunity to get together and there are so many different organizations there was spontaneous networking going on.

What’s the biggest demand for help by businesses? What requests do you get the most? Financing?

I think the biggest request is for technical assistance. It’s a person who wants to start a business and they want to run their idea by somebody, to say, ‘‘Do you think this is a good business ... and which direction should I go and who should I talk to?”

We do a lot of that with startup businesses. Some of them grow to be huge businesses. We’ve had some major firms start out coming through here.

Then we get a lot of people who are in business who run into some type of difficulty. They want to expand their business and they need a permit. So it’s the technical assistance piece we spend a lot of time with to make sure the small guys are able to move in the same circles as the big guys because they may not have the resources to go out and hire 10 people to do things.

We’ve had companies that walk in here that have great ideas, but we know that they’re never going to make it happen. So we need to point that out to them that you need to do this, this and this or it’s not going to happen. So sometimes we have to give the good news and the bad news.

Most businesses are going to fail, or a large percentage are going to fail, regardless of what happens, but we are going to try to do our best to make sure they are aware of the obvious things.

You said you get a lot of your desire to help businesses, to help people, from your upbringing?

I was greatly influenced by my parents and my grandparents and I saw what they did, with not a lot. My mother was a teacher and my father worked for the railroad. And my grandparents specifically were like the pillars of the community [in Florence, S.C.] and people didn’t do anything unless they came to ask them. Like, you had to get their permission to get married. It was amazing to me. So I thought it was good thing to be able to have some people who other people could depend upon to do things.

This was post-or pre-Civil Rights era?

It was still in the middle of it ... it was still going on.

What bearing did that have on what you wanted to do, early on, or did you understand a lot about what was going on?

Oh, we understood very well. My grandfather who is a minister made sure we understood, made sure we participated in a lot of things.

Marches? Walks or meetings?

All of the above. It brought an understanding early on about people and how it is incumbent upon you as a person to be involved in your community, so that was instilled early on.

When I was in college at Clark I started a visitation program for the elderly people who lived near campus. I called it a grandparent visitation program, where the students would actually visit these elderly folks who didn’t have people to come visit them.

During my master’s program [in urban planning at the University of Maryland] I worked in neighborhoods in Baltimore, under the old Model Cities program. I helped develop a multi service center and just got really involved in various neighborhoods. Then when I finished I took a job as a planner with the city of Baltimore and did a lot of redevelopment projects, where we wanted to bring a new vitality to a lot of these neighborhoods.

That’s when you first got involved with businesses?

Yes, and I started taking some business courses, because I started thinking about the economics, that with redevelopment, everything boiled down to economics. No matter what you did, no matter what you touched, that everything it all boiled down to economics, so I said, ‘‘Well, let’s start looking at this seriously.”

I dealt with a lot of businesses in the planning process and the bottom line of whether they were viable or what could we do to help them be financially viable, so I got involved in the business aspects of that. You know, it’s all right to try to talk about social services, but you need to talk about the economics of the situation, so I started leaning more toward that area.

Later I took a job with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, in D.C. I started working with all of these communities across the country, and we would write these grant proposals to get them money to do certain things. We put in sewer systems and housing development projects all over the country, getting them money that they never would have been able to get for themselves. We got millions of dollars for a lot of these little communities that would never have seen anything.

How long did you do that?

Oh, about three or four years. It involved a lot of traveling [laughs] ... so then I was trying to slow it down. I was sitting on the airplane one day and I couldn’t remember where I was going [laughs]. And I said, ‘‘This is time for you to do something different!”

And at that point, that’s when I opened my own business, owned it for several years. I’ll tell you how old it was, it was a word processing business! Back then nobody had word processors and we did a lot of work for architectural firms and other firms that used a lot of long documents. We did some printing too.

It was called Better Business Concepts. At that time it WAS a better business concept because people thought it was the best thing since sliced bread back then, but that was before everybody had a word processor or a computer.

How many employees?

At one point I had six or seven employees ... it was never a really big business, but I got a lot of information there that helped me in dealing with businesses now, because when they talk about the things that they’re going through, well I’ve been through that, so I know exactly what they are talking about. I know what it is to make sure that your taxes are paid and your payroll taxes are done. That was a great experience for me.

Katie Knowlin

Position: Assistant director, Division of Business Empowerment, Montgomery County Department of Economic Development.

Previous position: Manager, Business Empowerment, Montgomery County DED; director, Office of Minority Business Enterprise, Maryland Department of Transportation; executive assistant, state Department of Human Resources, Social Services Administration; special assistant, Governor’s Office of Minority Affairs; president and CEO, Better Business Concepts.

Education: Bachelor’s in psychology⁄social welfare, Clark Atlanta University; master’s in community planning, University of Maryland.

Organizations: Leadership Montgomery, class of 2007; National Forum for Black Public Administrators.

Awards: Outstanding Dedication and Service awards from the Korean Business Association, Maryland-Washington Minority Contractors Association, National Association of Purchasing Management-Maryland.

Residence: Baltimore.

Hobbies: Gardening.