Many Americans likely first became familiar with Linda McMahon through the exaggerated television persona of a corporate virago that stirred tumult and ill will in the musclebound soap opera storylines of World Wrestling Entertainment broadcasts. Closer to home, and far closer to reality, McMahon is recognized as a vibrant thought leader in Connecticut’s business community through her work as CEO of Women’s Leadership LIVE, a nonprofit encouraging female entrepreneurial endeavors.
Now she is in line for a new role that taps into her business experience while potentially giving her a very different public forum than her earlier WWE work: President-elect Donald Trump has picked her to run the U.S. Small Business Administration. The cabinet-level agency operates on an approximately $10 billion budget and approved more than 70,000 government-backed private-sector loans last year.
Trump and McMahon are longtime friends, with Trump making raucous appearances on WWE telecasts that included a moment when he shaved the skull of McMahon’s husband Vince, who succeed her as WWE CEO when she stepped down. Apparently there was no real harm done, as the McMahons donated $5 million to the Trump Foundation during the same period. And although McMahon initially backed Chris Christie’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination, she switched to Trump and donated $7 million to a pair of pro-Trump super PACs. She was a Trump delegate at the Republican National Convention and was present when he announced his upset election victory in New York City last month.
The SBA appointment means McMahon will make the relocation to Washington, D.C., that was denied her in her unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 2010 and 2012. The two Democrats that defeated her, Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both offered praise for McMahon’s nomination to lead the SBA.
Blumenthal told a New York radio station that McMahon’s “sense of focus and drive are qualities much in need along with her devotion to jobs and economic growth which the Trump administration needs.” Murphy in an MSNBC interview said McMahon was “unquestionably qualified for this job,” adding that she is “a Connecticut Republican, not an Oklahoma Republican – she’s bringing some important moderate values to the administration.”
Also offering praise was the state’s highest-ranking Democratic official, Gov. Dannel Malloy. “In the past,” Malloy said, “Ms. McMahon and I have worked together to support woman-owned businesses and I hope that she will continue to focus on growing the ranks of women executives in this new capacity.”
Business leaders in Connecticut greeted the news of McMahon’s nomination to run the SBA with enthusiasm and optimism.
Brian Flaherty, senior vice president of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, noted that 96 percent of CBIA members were small businesses and that McMahon’s ability to successfully grow WWE from a modest operation to a media empire offered encouragement to entrepreneurs with great goals.
“It also helps that she comes from Connecticut,” Flaherty said. “Our state had a stubbornly slow recovery of jobs since the 2008 recession. It is good to have someone in the presidential cabinet from our state that knows how to create and build jobs here and knows the problems that we face here.”
Emily Carter, state director of the Connecticut Small Business Development Center, was hopeful that McMahon’s high profile could bring more attention to the SBA’s programs.
“Overall, the SBA has an important focus on providing access to capital, which is a major need here in the state of Connecticut and across the country,” she said. “For our program, as an example, there has always been more demand than bandwidth. Her popularity and (WWE) notoriety may help bring more attention to the SBA’s programs and loans.”
But Christopher P. Bruhl, president and CEO of The Business Council of Fairfield County, noted that while McMahon’s close relationship with the president could throw a greater spotlight on the SBA, McMahon did not have the autonomy to run the agency independently of the White House or Congress.
“I think the role of the (SBA) administrator is defined largely by the policy objectives of the president and the budget authorization constraints of Congress,” Bruhl said. “Any administrator would be working with predetermined tools and with presidentially determined priorities.”
Nonetheless, Bruhl added, having a prominent figure like McMahon would help to attract more attention to an agency that is not a household name. “While people in the business community know about the SBA, the general public probably does not have the same level of awareness,” he said.
Several business experts said McMahon’s private-sector mindset could result in an SBA that is more cognizant of the needs of business professionals.
“She is a very bright and very sensitive person with a fertile mind,” said John Petillo, president of Sacred Heart University in Farifield, which has hosted McMahon’s “Women Can Have It All” seminar series celebrating female business leaders. “I could say she would be very approachable as the head of the SBA. She is also a quick learner and is not bureaucratic. People will start to pay attention to what the SBA is. It will not be a laid-back agency but it will be seen as a cabinet-level entity, which it may not be perceived as such.”
Fran Pastore, CEO of the Women’s Business Development Council in Stamford, pointed out that the WWE under McMahon’s leadership introduced a family day care program in 1991, long before it became common in the corporate world. She predicted that McMahon would continue to focus on encouraging women-run businesses while serving at the SBA.
“I have very high hopes because women’s businesses are the fastest-growing segment of the population,” she said. “I am hoping that she will do what she does very well – step back, look at data and allocate resources where we they can make the greatest gains.”
Attorney Eric L. Green, partner at Green & Sklarz LLC, wished for a McMahon-helmed SBA to cut away the agency’s red tape.
“Small business drives jobs,” he said. “Being a tax lawyer for both startups and companies in distress, I can say that the SBA has always been very, very difficult to deal with. It can take up to a year to get a $50,000 loan. I would hope that someone like Linda McMahon could streamline the SBA in order to get things done fast. She could bring a fresh look and a new attitude to what the SBA can do: drive jobs and the economy.”