Petite, bespectacled, with a ready, warm laugh, Ana Recio Harvey could be mistaken for a kindergarten teacher. She is, however, the business muscle in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration and a key element in its vision for a robust local economy.
Harvey manages the 50-person, $14 million Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD). The agency has four divisions: certification, affirming through a documentation process that companies are located in the District and giving them an edge in competitive government contracting and procurement; business opportunity and access to capital; commercial revitalization, which includes the popular Main Streets programs and clean team; and management. It also has assumed responsibility for the “Made in DC” project and an array of other special initiatives focused on diverse populations including ex-offenders.
Put plainly, Harvey and her team are critical elements in the narrative surrounding the failure or success of DC entrepreneurs and traditional local businesses.
“She is exceeding my expectations. I think she is the best director DSLBD has had. She’s been able to get that [Certified Business Enterprise] straightened out and she’s enthusiastic about the Made in DC program,” said Alexander M. Padro, an advisory neighborhood commissioner and the executive director of Shaw Main Streets. “She’s a very visible and a very genuine spokesperson for small business in our city,” added Padro.
“I always joke: I am here for ribbon cuttings and wine tastings,” Harvey said, during an interview with me in the conference room of the agency’s eighth-floor office suite at One Judiciary Square. She smiled as we discussed the previous state of the CBE program and other problems that initially confronted her. “They never told me how difficult this would be.”
Maybe not. Harvey is no wimp and no novice, however.
Harvey has a significant grasp of the micro and macro of business. She has owned two companies, advocated as the president of an association of regional Hispanic businesses, and served in a key management position in former President Barack Obama’s administration.
That journey began with her desire to enroll her son in a Montessori school. “I wanted $5,000 to pay the tuition,” she explained. “I started as a freelance translator, finding clients on my own.” That was in 2000, when she founded Syntaxis LLC. “My clientele started growing, and one of them asked if I did French translation. Of course, I didn’t; I speak Spanish. But I said yes. I hired by first French translator.”
Before long, Harvey’s translation business was offering 25 languages and she had 75 people in her employ. Meanwhile, she became a member of the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and was working a second job with Cultural DC. “I got to know neighborhoods like Columbia Heights,” she said.
Her skill and willingness to collaborate with others prompted the chamber’s president to encourage her to apply for his job when he decided to step down in 2007. “I was at the chamber one year and 11 months when Obama was doing his listening tour.” Her participation in several workshops caught the attention of the right people. Soon after he became president, she was asked in 2009 to join the federal Small Business Administration (SBA) as assistant administrator at the Office of Women’s Business Ownership. “I walked into my office, and sitting at my desk I was wondering how I was going to do this job. It was daunting.”
She reflected on her own experience as a woman business owner. “I made mistakes in running it: I didn’t know how to finance it. I was taking loans and using my credit card. There were times when I didn’t know how I was going to make payroll. I never asked for help. No one ever offered to help me either. Success was expensive for me – as a woman,” added Harvey.
All those hardships and challenges gave her a unique perspective at the SBA, where she was responsible, among other things, for helping to build women’s business centers, which provided training and counseling. “I learned how to manage grants. I was handling millions of dollars. We’re stewards of taxpayers’ money. We were not going to waste it.”
She said she defunded a center in California that was doing poorly. She shifted those funds to create a new center in the District, which until then didn’t have one. “Under my tenure in the SBA, it was the first time there was a center in all 50 states and territories.”
That work was grueling. “I did a lot of traveling; the only places I didn’t go were Alaska and Hawaii,” said Harvey. After Obama won his second term, she decided to leave. “I had to rest.” She started another business, the HarveyHudson Group, which allowed her to use her now polished financial skills.
Then she received another telephone call. “I was a Virginia resident. I was asked to come to a meeting; three people were there, including [former DC Councilmember] Charlene Drew Jarvis. They invited me to come back on a Saturday. That’s when I met with the mayor and she offered me the job.
“I had a good grasp of where the city needed to go to catch up with the rest of the jurisdictions,” continued Harvey, noting that the DSLBD is the city’s version of the SBA. Further, while there had been much attention focused on the CBE program and its failures, there are “60,000 small businesses in the city;” restaurants, retail boutiques, architectural firms, and consulting firms, among others.
Harvey said everyone working with her “has embraced the mission. We have reached out to many other businesses: main street, clean teams, while expanding certain demographics – Hispanic women, disabled business owners, and ex-offenders. My job is to grow industries.”
A Few Accolades
Prior to Harvey’s arrival, DSLBD had been declared a mess. For example, a 2013 audit found that “the legal requirements and internal controls were not sufficient to address the goals of the programs.” Equally troubling, the DSLBD “did not have a compliance and monitoring unit,” opportunities for professional development of staff were insufficient, and the process for ensuring independence from politics was not sufficient.
Further, companies sometimes had to wait years before receiving the coveted CBE designation. Such delays would choke off contracting and procurement opportunities, which sometimes resulted in businesses closing prematurely. CBE problems also made owners vulnerable to corrupt individuals; former at-large councilmember Michael Brown attempted to shake down one business owner seeking certification. Brown was caught on tape by the FBI and later pleaded guilty to a felony.
“Muriel had breakfast with us and promised a robust small business agenda. She has followed through with that – Ana Harvey was part of it,” said Jose Sueiro, director of the Metro DC Hispanic Contractors Association.
Harvey said one of the first charges the mayor gave her was to “fix CBE. Do whatever it takes to make it work.” She did just that. Mostly because of her efforts, the DC Chamber of Commerce named Bowser one of its 2016 Small Business Champions. Harvey and her team produced what has come to be called “The Green Book,” chock full of information small companies need to know, including how to compete for contracts. This year, the chamber has decided to present the DSLBD with the same award. (Eventually, they’ll get around to calling Harvey out by name.)
Actually, Harvey has collected her share of awards. In 2015, she received the Ohtli Award, which is the highest honor from the Mexican government bestowed on a Mexican national living outside of Mexico. In 2016, the Office of Latino Affairs gave her its Good Governance Award. And in 2017, she was finalist for the Women in Technology Leadership Award.
Perhaps the most important, however, are the accolades from local business leaders like Mary Quillian, who owns Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill and is a member of the board of Eastern Market Main Street. Main Streets are the city’s prime vehicles for helping to revitalize neighborhood commercial corridors and bring specific assistance to small companies. “They’ve given us good guidance and are doing a good job of nurturing us,” explained Quillian. “Director Harvey has brought great energy to DSLBD.”
Ditto that, said Council Chair Pro Tempore Kenyan McDuffie. “I’m also seeing a solid vision of her trying to be inclusive of all the marginalized communities, particularly as it relates to Aspire. That’s a pretty solid, hands-on program that addresses concerns of returning citizens.” Aspire is a pilot program that works in tandem with other DC agencies to help ex-offenders become business owners. Harvey said the program received an award from the US Conference of Mayors, and last year the federal SBA took its name and then duplicated it in five cities.
A Tough Road Ahead
Harvey may have earned high marks but there is more earning to do. “There are gaps,” said McDuffie. “The CBE is not the be-all, end-all of the small business ecosystem.” He said the agency should do more to provide access to capital, particularly for minority-owned business. It should spend more time helping companies build capacity, and there should be greater compliance enforcement. “My biggest criticism of the agency is that it lacks resources it needs to retain and attract small businesses,” McDuffie added.
Like other business owners, Quillian said the agency could do more, particularly helping them to interface with other agencies. She cited as an example the problem of one Capitol Hill business waiting for a license. “It was a creamery that was desperately trying to get a license to make cheese in the city. By the time it got its license, it ran out of money,” continued Quillian, offering that the DSLBD should be able to track that and provide assistance.
Harvey said she and her team have been exploring other ways they might assist businesses. They are looking at sharing an integrated software system with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. When a business is awarded a license, DSLBD would be alerted immediately and could spring into action, providing much needed first-year aid and guidance. She said the agency, with the mayor, is also beginning to examine the issue of the affordability of commercial space for small business and the weight of regulations. “We’re losing a lot of businesses because of affordability.”
The most important thing Harvey suggested that she and her team can do is to remember why they are there – not just for the businesses but the entire city. Some mornings, as she drives into work, she randomly chooses someone on the street to remind of her that priority. The day of our interview, she encountered an older African-American man. She had seen him before. “It seemed like he was carrying the weight of the world. I said okay, today whatever I do, I’m doing it for you.”
“I tell my staff, they are not just signing papers. Everything we are involved in, every single document, every meeting, there is a person, a real, live person, attached to it,” added Harvey, providing tangible evidence of why she has so many fans across the city.