Peninsula woman lauded as leader, small-business pioneer
Ex-Belvedere mayor inducted into Marin Women’s Hall of Fame
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the May 18, 2016, edition of The Ark. It earned first place for Profile Feature Story in the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s 2016 Better Newspapers Contest.
By HEATHER LOBDELL
Barbara Morrison says that as part of the ’60s generation, she knew she was destined to change the world.
“I didn’t know how, but somehow I wanted to leave the world a better place,” she says. “I had no career script — one thing just led to another until I found what I was looking for.”
Now the Tiburon resident, a former Belvedere mayor and a business pioneer who has built two thriving companies while advancing the financial security of Bay Area small businesses, has made her latest mark on history. In March, Morrison was inducted into the Marin Women’s Hall of Fame for her lifetime of leadership and advocacy of women and small business, an elite group of just 140 women since the program started in 1988.
Locally, Morrison may be best known for her work in the community, co-founding Bookmarks, an auxiliary of the Belvedere-Tiburon Library Foundation, in 1995 to get young mothers interested in raising money for the library’s Children’s Room. She herself was a young mother, moving to Belvedere just three years prior when her daughters, Emily and Anna, were 2 and 4, respectively.
Bookmarks has grown ever more popular and is today essential to the library’s fundraising efforts, hosting two popular annual events — the Teddy Bear Tea and Blackie’s Hay Day. Morrison also later served as a member of the governing Library Agency board, and as a member of the Library Foundation and the Belvedere Community Foundation.
She was also pulled into politics, elected to serve as a councilmember in Belvedere in 2004 and re-elected in 2008, twice serving as Belvedere’s mayor.
Helping small businesses
But in the Bay Area and beyond, her biggest influence has been her business acumen. Morrison is the founder, CEO and president of TMC Financing, a nonprofit that works with banks to provide affordable real estate financing to small-business owners through the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 504 loan program.
“When small businesses own their own buildings, it takes the whims of landlords out of the equation and promotes stable communities, expenses and jobs,” Morrison says.
To date, TMC has provided more than $8 billion in real estate financing to more than 5,000 small businesses in California and Nevada; has been responsible for the creation of some 50,000 jobs; and is the second-largest 504 loan provider in the nation, according to the company’s statistics.
In Marin County alone, TMC has provided $200 million in project financing to 125 businesses and helped retain or create more than 1,000 jobs.
The company also financed Steve Sears and Brian Wilson’s purchase of the building that houses their famed Sam’s Anchor Cafe on Tiburon’s Main Street.
“For more than 35 years, I’ve had the joy and privilege of having a front row seat on so many small-business success stories,” Morrison says. “The heroes of these stories are the entrepreneurs — the ones who have had the courage, the optimism and the guts to turn a dream and an idea into a business.”
Morrison has also shown courage and optimism, along with hard work and grit.
“My mother was the one person who exerted the most influence on my career,” she says. “After college, in the midst of the Depression, she went to Washington, D.C., became part of the New Deal and opened Social Security offices. Three years later, she moved back home to New England, got married and never worked again.”
From an early age, Morrison says she understood her mother’s lost potential.
“My mother’s day was spent with ‘As the World Turns,’ ‘Days of Our Lives’ and ‘Guiding Light’ until 4:30, when she went into the kitchen, ostensibly to start dinner, but actually to mix her first martini of the day,” Morrison recalls. “Early on, I knew I would always work because I was determined to avoid the financial dependency that trapped my mother.”
Morrison moved to San Francisco from Massachusetts in the mid ’70s. She began her career as a sales assistant at Paine Webber and Co. stock brokerage, where she soon discovered that the traders were having the most fun. At a time when female traders were almost unheard of, she passed tests to become a broker and, when Paine wouldn’t hire her, she took a job as a trader with a smaller regional firm. She liked the work, but not the chauvinism she faced every day.
“They didn’t want to print business cards for me because ‘girls don’t get business cards,’” she says. She also had to fight to be listed in the lobby directory. “When they finally agreed, it was only my first initial and last name. I was B. Morrison.”
Public policy was shifting focus toward economic development and job creation during the late ’70s, and Morrison was keen to become part of that movement. She quit the trading desk and walked into San Francisco City Hall to ask for work.
“I’d heard about the city’s Office of Economic Development and wanted to be a part of that,” Morrison says. She was told there was no money to hire her, but she decided to stay anyway, as an unpaid intern.
“It was an exciting time, when research showed that it was small businesses, not Fortune 500 companies, that were creating new jobs,” Morrison says.
It wasn’t long before she’d made herself indispensible to then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s staff and was asked to lead the newly minted Small Business Administration program.
“I was the only one in the office who knew an income statement from a balance sheet, thanks to studying for the traders’ test, so I was put in charge of the program,” she says.
But government bureaucracy got under Morrison’s skin.
“Things moved too slowly and I was frustrated because I could see a way to make things happen quickly and more efficiently,” she says.
In 1981, she left City Hall to found TMC, which has been named to the San Francisco Business Times’ list of the Bay Area’s Best Places to Work as recently as last year.
Through the years, Morrison also recognized a need for entrepreneurial education. In the early 1980s, when MBAs were geared toward corporate careers and college-level entrepreneurship programs did not exist, she became a founding board member of San Francisco’s Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center and helped design a 14-week program tailored to budding entrepreneurs. The Renaissance center remains a vital outreach and support network for socially and economically diverse women and men throughout the Bay Area.
In 1999, Morrison founded her second company, Working Solutions, a nonprofit micro-lender focused on providing business coaching and funding to low-income, woman and minority business owners who lack access to conventional financing. Since its inception, Working Solutions has disbursed more than $9 million in loans to more than 340 Bay Area entrepreneurs, 71 percent of whom are identified as low to moderate income, and 63 percent of whom are women.
Khalid Almaznai, a Yemeni immigrant who came to the Bay Area in 1995, is one local Working Solutions success story. While working as a driver for a Marin taxi company, he had developed a solid customer base in Belvedere and Tiburon. However, the high fees he paid to the taxi company made it impossible to cover personal expenses, and Almaznai needed public assistance to support his family. In 2013, Working Solutions helped Almaznai with a business plan and loaned him $5,000 he needed for insurance, licenses and branding for Belvedere Tiburon Taxi.
“I know from personal experience that Khalid will be at your door any time, day or night, to take you to the airport or anywhere you need to go,” Morrison says.
She has been widely recognized for her work, honored among the Business Times’ Most Influential Women in the Bay Area and named the 2012 Financial Woman of the Year by the Financial Women of San Francisco, among other awards as an advocate for women, diversity and business.
Morrison’s energy and enthusiasm seem boundless, operating two companies while serving as a community volunteer and raising teenage daughters as a single mother.
“I never let my girls watch Disney princess movies because I never wanted them to buy into the prince myth,” she says. “I wanted them to know they were in charge of their own destinies, financial and otherwise.”
Morrison also wanted her daughters to know how gratifying it is to engage in meaningful work.
“It’s important to be absorbed in what you are doing and to have something significant of your own beyond just money,” she says.
Morrison’s daughters appear to have learned well from their mother. Anna O’Brien, 27, works alongside her mother at TMC Financing, and Emily O’Brien, 25, recently finished graduate school in Wisconsin and is beginning her career with Epic Systems Corporation, a health-care software development company.
Contributor Heather Lobdell of Tiburon has worked as an editor and writer for several home and garden magazines.