An Interview with Charles Ou, Senior Economist and Small Business Finance Expert, on His Retirement from 32 Years of Federal Service
Tobias, Kathryn, The Small Business Advocate
Q: You came to this country as a young man. What were your first impressions
A: I came in 1962. It was impressive - such a big country! When I flew from California to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, all I saw on the way were vast farmlands. In the taxi from the airport to the UNCChapel Hill campus, we drove across hills with trees everywhere; it was so very pretty. I came from Taiwan, a tiny island, one-quarter the size of the state of Virginia. You don't have many tall trees on the island - mostly subtropical bushes, not big oak trees.
Q: Who or what influenced your career choice ?
A: It happened by accident. My father wanted me to study commerce to help him run his grocery store after high school; he had a successful grocery store in our town. So, I passed the entry exam to the best commercial high school in Taipei. (A six-year vocational course, rather than general education.) However, during senior high school, I also studied on my own for college entrance exams. I passed the exam and got accepted to the Taiwan National University. So I went to college instead of taking a job offer from the Bank of Taiwan. It must have been a disappointment for my father!
After finishing college, I had one job offer from a big bank and another offer as an assistant instructor at my alma mater. I decided to take the academic position, and also decided that I needed go abroad for graduate study. I had put great effort into studying English, especially in conversational English. I spent 300 yen of my monthly take-home pay of 540 Taiwanese yen (about $15 or $20 at the time) to pay for private lessons with an English tutor!
Q: Was it difficult to immigrate at that time?
A: Yes and no. It was easy as long as you could pass the government exams to study abroad and the American Embassy's English exam. Financially, it was very hard, even for my father with his grocery store. I had to have $2,000 in American dollars to cover the first year expenses! I was the third of nine children and the first to come to America. My parents did not have any formal education - my father started working as a breakfast vendor at the age of 10 to help support the family. He wanted us to have the best education; he ended up sending six of us to the United States: four Ph.Ds and two MAs.
At UNC in Chapel Hill, I met and married Charlotte, a Taiwanese student in library science. After Charlotte received her master's of library science and I completed my studies, we had our first daughter in Chapel Hill in 1967. I got a teaching job at Wake Forest. A year later, I went to teach at the University of Dayton (1969-1973), then to Queens College in Charlotte, North Carolina (1973-1977), before joining the SBA's Office of Research and Statistics in 1977.
Q: That was before there was an Office of Advocacy, right?
A: Yes, that came in 1978. Advocacy absorbed the office and grew.
Q: Do you have any particular memories of those early years?
A: Congress gave us so much money! We tried to use money to break new ground in data and research grants. But we had limited success because of limited data.
Q: What about your field of small business finance ?
A: At that time, all we had was the Federal Reserve Board's 1956 study on small business financing. We tried to provide a current study on the issues with a project in collaboration with the Federal Reserve. The result was a small lender survey and a compendium of papers on small business financing topics.
Q: Did you contribute to the first report on The State of Small Business in 1982?
A: Yes. It was not easy because there was not much data. I squeezed as much as I could from the IRS Statistics of Income corporate tax return data on the assets and liabilities of small corporations.
Q: So you didn 't have to start in the Office of Advocacy with a completely blank slate.
A: Not quite. But collecting small business financial information is and will continue to be a challenge. …