Small Business Administration: Who is Karen Gordon Mills?

Thursday, December 25, 2008
Karen Gordon Mills, Barack Obama’s choice to head the Small Business Administration, is an established venture capitalist and future heir to one of America’s favorite candy companies.
Born in 1953, Mills is the daughter of Melvin, 89, and Ellen Gordon, 77, controllers of Tootsie Roll Industries, a $420 million revenue company that includes other brands like Mason Dots, Junior Mints, Sugar Babies, Charleston Chew and Double Bubble chewing gum. Ellen Gordon told Crain’s Chicago Business in 2005 that they planned to pass the business down to their four daughters.
Mills grew up in Boston, even though her parents relocated the business to Chicago in 1968. She attended high school at Winsor School in Boston, then went to Harvard, where served as president of the Dramatic Club while earning her AB in economics magna cum laude (1975). She was a Baker Scholar at the Harvard Business School, receiving her MBA in 1977.
Mills first worked as a product manager for General Foods, then as a consultant for McKinsey & Company. From 1983 to 1993, she served as chief executive officer and managing director of E.S. Jacobs & Company, a private investment firm. In 1993, she became president of the MMP Group, Inc., a New York-based management consulting and investment banking services company.From 1999 to 2007 she was founding partner and managing director of Solera Capital, a New York-based venture capital firm that is largely run by women.
Solera has $250 million under management and specializes in later-stage investments in new companies. “Our operating philosophy is to invest about $15–20 million in each deal and take a controlling interest,” Mills told the Harvard Business School Bulletin. “We like to be the capital that comes in to grow the business to the next level — build the next plant, make an acquisition, or expand the brand.”
Among the businesses Solera has helped is The Little Clinic, which provides neighborhood-based physician assistants and advanced registered nurse practitioners, Annie’s, an organic food store, and Latina Media Ventures, publisher of Latina magazine.
Mills sits on the board of several companies, including Scotts Miracle-Gro, Armor All, Telex Communications, Arrow Electronics, and Triangle Pacific Corp. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, she is a member of the Harvard Business School Visiting Committee and is a Harvard Overseer. She is also well connected in the state of Maine.
Mills is a close economic adviser to Maine Gov. John E. Baldacci (D), chairs Maine’s Council on Competitiveness and the Economy, sits on the Council for the Redevelopment of the Brunswick Naval Air Station, and serves on the boards of the Maine Technology Institute, the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy, and the George Mitchell Scholarship Fund. Furthermore, her husband, Barry, a prominent New York lawyer who was a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, became president of Bowdoin College in Maine after heading up the search committee for a new president.
Mills was serving on Obama’s Small Business Administration transition team when she was announced as the next administrator of the agency.
Karen Gordon Mills: Her Excellent Adventures (by Margie Kelley, Harvard Business School Bulletin)


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