Rock Star Entrepreneurs Don’t Come to Washington
Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute
If you have ever been around somebody trying to start or grow a business, you know that entrepreneurs don’t have time for much else, especially not for going to Washington to help keep policymakers up to date on how to encourage high growth entrepreneurship in America—not hurt it. When I first worked on Capitol Hill for a member of Congress on the Ways and Means committee in 1988, none of the emerging companies had offices in Washington. HP had an informed voice in Eben Tisdale, but he was the exception. Google, started in 1998, only established an office in Washington, D.C. in 2005 when it was already a stable, successful company and then only reluctantly. So the question dawned on me; with entrepreneurs absorbed by the entrepreneurial process, who represents entrepreneurs in Washington?
Many of you will jump in and offer a long list of trade associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the National Small Business Association (NSBA), the National Women's Business Council (NWBC), the National Association of Self Employed, the U.S. Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (USASBE), the Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO), National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE), the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA), and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB). There are also other non-profit organizations that air related issues such as the Council on Competitiveness, the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED), the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), National Women’s Business Council (NWBC), and Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).
However, a closer look reveals that although these organizations may be invaluable to their members, they are not heavyweights for entrepreneurship and its high growth job creators. First, high growth entrepreneurs are not that evident in their ranks and even where you might expect to see them such as at the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), there appears to be a decline in membership in the past few years. And the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA), for example, represents institutional venture capitalists whose interests, contrary to popular myth, are not always aligned with those of entrepreneurs.
Second, entrepreneurship is often on the sidelines or at best a few notches down on their list. For example, the Council on Competitiveness did exemplary work in moving the agenda on innovation, but the entrepreneurs who bring those innovations to life were viewed more as a part of the story rather than as its heart.
Finally, if you have met any young serial “rock star” entrepreneurs, you know they don’t fit the mold of the traditional Washington trade association. They are impatient with “meetings” and probably don’t own a tie, let alone a grey suit, and would not last more than an hour at the typical Washington trade association fly-in. To get a glimpse of how they do operate, take a look at Elliot Bisnow’s “Summit Series” that brings together many of the world's top CEOs, entrepreneurs, entertainers, and philanthropists under 35. You could also look at the team at StartupWeekend.com that combines startup enthusiasts, marketing gurus, graphic artists and more at a 54 hour event that moves entrepreneurs from idea to launch.
Interestingly, the public and philanthropic sectors have contributed much from a research perspective. The Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, created by Congress in 1976 to represent small businesses within the federal government's legislative and rule-making processes, has published several reports on the burdens that federal policies impose on small firms, among other topics. And there are other entities such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Academies, the National Science Foundation, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), all of which help as advocates for unleashing bottled up innovation.
And of course, the Kauffman Foundation, which sponsors this web site and the Policy Dialogue on Entrepreneurship (PDE), has been informing policymaking for years through its research on the phenomenon of new firm formation and growth, the nature of the entrepreneur, the impact of entrepreneurship on the economy, and many other areas. The Kauffman Foundation has also offered expertise on proven programs to increase interest and skills in entrepreneurship, such as FastTrac. With the Policy Dialogue on Entrepreneurship, we are working to disseminate this knowledge among policymakers, while at the same time informing about other relevant publications and encouraging a conversation on how entrepreneurship intersects with policy areas ranging from health care to energy.
However, this still leaves the fundamental question on the table. Are policymakers hearing enough from real entrepreneurs as opposed to necessity small business or are they, as I fear, not really at the table in Washington? Evidence shows entrepreneurs have not had an influence on economic policy that is measurable to their role as drivers of economic growth. For instance, a recent Kauffman Foundation survey of entrepreneurs revealed that quite a portion of entrepreneurs (53%) believe that the stimulus package has hurt entrepreneurial activity. The majority of entrepreneurs also said they continue to struggle due to a worsening economy (59%) and that they want government to do more to encourage entrepreneurship (58%). Simply put, the majority of entrepreneurs do not share the increasing optimism on Wall Street. Much as we hear every elected official in Washington praise them, I am not entirely sure they really understand what inspires them and makes them tick.
I have talked before about one emerging network of young aspiring entrepreneurs and their supporters being developed within 85 countries through Global Entrepreneurship Week celebrations. I end with another. This weekend I had the honor of joining the Inc. 500/5000 Conference in Washington, D.C., where entrepreneurs from America's fastest-growing companies gathered and where the Kauffman Foundation launched a new initiative that might be part of the answer - the Entrepreneurs' Movement. There is finally a creative effort to help busy entrepreneurs organize, not through an old-fashioned trade association, but through a movement. Using the theme “Build a Stronger America,” the movement will engage entrepreneurs as well as supporters of entrepreneurship, uniting them to have a stronger voice in the public discussion about America’s economic future. With more than 70 percent of voters saying that entrepreneurs are important for the health of the economy, this movement promises to contribute to sound policymaking.
If you want to do more, get your community to share their story, join the movement and connect with other entrepreneurs.
Jonathan Ortmans is a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation where he focuses on public policies to promote entrepreneurship in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, he serves as president of the Public Forum Institute, a non-partisan organization dedicated to fostering dialogue on important policy issues.