On Sept. 14, 2012, Lillian E. Salerno became the Acting Administrator for USDA Rural Development, Rural Business‐Cooperative Service (RBS). Before coming to RBS, Lillian served as the Special Assistant for Rural Housing Service. Ms. Salerno brings to this position over twenty years of experience in creating initiatives and developing job-creation strategies both domestically and internationally.
Ms. Salerno is an experienced coalition builder, which she attributes to her growing up in rural Texas as one of nine children. Lillian holds a B.A. degree in Latin American studies from the University of Texas at Austin, an M.A. in Sociology from the University of North Texas, and a J.D. degree from Southern Methodist University.
Tell us about you and your background. How did you come to work for USDA?
I bring over twenty years of experience in creating initiatives for strengthening work forces and promoting jobs both domestically and internationally. The focus of my career has been promoting and empowering populations through government initiatives and entrepreneurship. I have extensive experience collaborating with local communities, senior level officials of public and private sector organizations, senior representatives of civil society, and grassroots organizations.
- Successfully negotiated Federal and state contracts for small businesses.
- Successfully applied for and received Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Federal grant money.
- Oversaw and eventually managed a substantial piece of Federal funding by helping U.S. legislators and members of the Executive Branch formulate solutions for the protection of healthcare workers and delivery systems.
- Was a senior executive and director of Texas-based Retractable Technologies, Inc., a leading manufacturer of automated retraction safety needle devices from 1994 to 2000.
- Served as president of the International Association of Safe Injection Technology (IASIT), a Geneva-based nonprofit organization I founded in 2001.
Much of your career has focused on rural issues. What do you believe are the primary challenges facing rural America?
I strongly believe that Secretary Vilsack is right when he says that we need to maintain rural America’s vitality. Rural areas provide a vast majority of our agricultural output, energy production, and tourism in our national parks. However, it is all our responsibility to promote these positive economic benefits happening in rural America. We must accelerate the ongoing work of promoting economic growth in rural areas through a focus on spurring agricultural innovation, expanding infrastructure, increasing access to capital in rural areas for small businesses, and creating economic opportunities through conservation and outdoor recreation. If we continue to work on these items, I trust that rural America will continue to be a vital piece of our country’s future success.
What role have cooperatives played in your life?
I grew up in rural Texas in a very large family. There was a local electric company called the Denton County Electric Co-op (now CoServ) in our region. I have memories of my parents attending the Co-op meetings to discuss the utility rates. I am also still a member of a credit union I joined when I worked for a University, which helped me with loan applications to start my company and purchase a car. These co-ops helped provide a quality of life and opportunities for my family and myself that would not otherwise have been possible.
What are the core functions of the Rural Business-Cooperative Service? What is your vision for the RB-CS?
I would like to see cooperatives continue to use RBCS programs to have an impact on rural communities and the rural economy. RBCS programs assist businesses, create jobs, and expand entrepreneurial opportunities in rural areas. Programs such as the Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan, Rural Business Enterprise Grant, Value Added Producer Grant and Renewable Energy for America Program have advanced business development, local food, value added agriculture and renewable energy activities.
My vision is to expand economic opportunity in rural America by funding innovative business opportunities. Having started and managed a business in rural America, I know the importance of having adequate capital for expansion, inventories, and working capital. In order to ensure that businesses in our neediest communities have access to capital, I plan on emphasize the need to reduce program complexity, streamline documentation, and minimize application burden. We need to make our programs easier for applicants to apply for; easier for the field to administer; and easier for lenders to understand and comply with.
What role do you see member-owned, democratically governed cooperative business enterprises playing in building the recovery and growth of the US economy—particularly in rural areas? What role can USDA play in making your vision a reality?
Cooperatives remain an integral part of the rural community and economy and their contributions have been documented many times over. Farm supply, marketing, and service co-ops continue to be a part of the day-to-day lives of many rural producers while housing, food, worker and utility co-ops provide needed services to rural communities. Through the work done by our Cooperative Programs staff, the Rural Cooperative Development Grant program, and Rural Cooperatives magazine, USDA and RBS can acknowledge and promote successful cooperative operations and are a voice for cooperatives throughout the Federal government.
Cooperative education materials developed within RBCS continue to be in high demand by educators, co-op members, and co-op boards and management.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The best part about my job is when I get to travel to rural America to visit the small businesses and projects that we finance. My favorite experiences are when I get to meet with individuals who are able to pursue their dreams of opening or expanding their business because of the support that we provide them.
Most recently, when I was on a visit in Missouri, I toured the Jowler Creek Winery. The owners showed me how our Value Added Producer Grant gave them the working capital to finance their new sparkling wine product. The sparkling wine was a major seller for their winery and helped expand the business for their other products as well. This success story was a great experience for me because I was able to see firsthand how our grants can make such a big difference for business owners.
What’s your proudest accomplishment during your time at USDA?
I will spin this question as to what I hope to accomplish since I have only been the Acting Administrator in the Rural Business and Cooperative Services Agency for a couple of months. My hope is that I can expand our agency to become more proactive in our outreach efforts to those who can benefit from our programs, but may be unaware of what we offer. As a former small business owner in rural Texas, I know what it is like to be on the other side of the table overwhelmed by all the different government programs out there. I strongly believe that Rural Development, and our RBS Agency specifically, can use our unique position of primarily field staff to reach those who need it most.
Do you have any other thoughts about cooperatives or specific advice for the leaders of the cooperative community?
The cooperative business model is a time-tested tool for rural producers and communities to use in filling a void in the marketplace and keeping resources in the community. Cooperatives working together with Rural Development programs can offer increased opportunities for long-term, sustainable economic gains for rural America.