Karen Gordon Mills recently took time out of her schedule as a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government to deliver a talk on finance to Bowdoin students. She also gave advice on how to apply a liberal arts education toward a career in business.
Mills, who is married to President Barry Mills, discussed her education and career path, describing in particular her transition from the private sector to public service. From 2009 to 2013, she served as President Obama’s administrator for the Small Business Administration.
Mills received her B.A. from Harvard College and received her MBA from Harvard Business School. Her first job after graduation was as a project manager for Kool-Aid. After a stint consulting, Mills joined a private equity company, becoming an expert in factory finance and food manufacturing. After the 2008 financial crisis, she was offered a job in the Obama administration, where she served for five years before accepting her new positions at Harvard.
The first rule of business, according to Mills, is “never run out of money.” The second is to learn accounting, the “language of business.” She said she so firmly believes in the importance of accounting skills that she has encouraged President Mills to bring programs like Fullbridge to Bowdoin.
Mills also told students who are specifically interested in a life on Wall Street that “it looks robust and exciting, and you can make a lot of money, but you’ve got to keep your head. And if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” The sobering lessons of the recent financial crisis are not to be forgotten, she added.
According to Mills, “The values of a liberal arts education…are going to help you make those judgments” on a range of ethical and intellectual issues. While money can be a tremendous force for good and offer flexibility, it can also lead to confusion about “where the lines are,” hence the importance of a Bowdoin education and its dedication to the common good.