From her fifth-floor office in Buffalo’s Niagara Center, Colleen Hiam, ’87, exudes a poised friendliness and professionalism that would behoove any business leader.
Hiam, however, applies those qualities beyond the regular business transaction. As the director of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Disaster Assistance Customer Service Center since 2012, Hiam navigates human emotions during the worst of times. Currently, she oversees a staff of 170 who respond to victims of the kind of disasters that destroy homes and businesses, decimate towns, and irrevocably change lives.
Normally, the center handles some 250,000 calls annually and provides long-term, low-interest disaster loans to homeowners, renters, and business owners.
Hiam, who also served as the center’s deputy director for seven years, has a steely courage evidenced in and out of the office. With her husband, she’s tried scuba diving, bungee jumping, gliding, white-water rafting, and cliff diving. This love of extreme sports serves her well in a profession fueled by adrenaline and rapid-fire decision making.
During Harvey, Irma, and Maria—the massive hurricanes that hit Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico last fall—Hiam quickly moved to temporarily increase her staff from 56 to 350 people to respond to the high volume of calls: more than 1 million in three months.
“We had a fabulous team of people come from the SBA and other federal agencies,” she said. “It was amazing how many people stepped up.”
Stepping up and plunging in is what disaster relief work is all about, a lesson Hiam quickly learned as the public information officer for SBA’s Disaster Assistance Office in 1998.
Four and a half weeks after she took the job, Georges, a Category 4 hurricane, hit the Caribbean and the U.S. Gulf Coast, leaving more than 600 people dead and causing more than $9 billion in damage.
“I dealt with the media, organized town meetings, and communicated with government and local authorities,” she said. “I fell in love with the job.”
Over the next seven years, she handled communications following an earthquake in Seattle, a slew of tornadoes that ripped through the Midwest, hurricanes that battered Florida—and the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“Emotionally, 9/11 was the hardest disaster to work,” she said.
The ability to think on her feet, communicate well, and plan strategically were skills she honed while working toward her business degree at Buffalo State.
“I found mentors both in the computer information systems program, where I began, and then in the business program, after I switched majors,” she said.
Hiam enrolled at Buffalo State as a nontraditional student at age 24. She took a full slate of classes while working second shift in computer operations at MetroTeller. She also got involved on campus, joining the Non-Traditional Student Organization (NTSO), the Commuter Council, and the Student Senate. Even while juggling work and extracurricular activities, Hiam graduated summa cum laude in four years.
The college’s Small Business Development Center immediately hired her as a general business counselor. She provided small-business counseling, developed and marketed training programs, and assisted minority-owned businesses in securing government contracts, among other duties.
Through her 28 years with the SBA, Hiam has garnered numerous awards and accolades. She also has acquired a unique understanding of life’s fragility.
“You value even the small things, things that shouldn’t be taken for granted,” she said.
Her role has also helped her appreciate living in the city where she grew up.
“We are so lucky living in Western New York because we don’t normally have tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, or the loss of life,” she said. “We may have an occasional blizzard and cold weather. But, after seeing such destruction, I’ll take a blizzard and shovel snow any day.”