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Rockstar Entrepreneurs Don't Come to Washington

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

If you have ever been around somebody trying to start or grow abusiness, you know that entrepreneurs don’t have time for much else,especially not for going to Washington to help keep policymakers up todate on how to encourage high growth entrepreneurship in America—nothurt it. When I first worked on Capitol Hill for a member of Congresson the Ways and Means committee in 1988, none of the emerging companieshad 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 whenit was already a stable, successful company and then only reluctantly.So the question dawned on me; with entrepreneurs absorbed by theentrepreneurial 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, acloser look reveals that although these organizations may be invaluableto their members, they are not heavyweights for entrepreneurship andits high growth job creators. First, high growth entrepreneurs are notthat evident in their ranks and even where you might expect to see themsuch as at the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB),there appears to be a decline in membership in the past few years.  Andthe National Venture Capital Association (NVCA), for example,represents institutional venture capitalists whose interests, contraryto popular myth, are not always aligned with those of entrepreneurs.

Second,entrepreneurship is often on the sidelines or at best a few notchesdown on their list. For example, the Council on Competitiveness didexemplary work in moving the agenda on innovation, but theentrepreneurs who bring those innovations to life were viewed more as apart of the story rather than as its heart.

Finally, if you havemet any young serial “rockstar” entrepreneurs, you know they don’t fitthe mold of the traditional Washington trade association. They areimpatient with “meetings” and probably don’t own a tie, let alone agrey suit, and would not last more than an hour at the typicalWashington trade association fly-in. To get a glimpse of how they dooperate, 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 theteam at Startup Weekend thatcombines startup enthusiasts, marketing gurus, graphic artists and moreat 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 thefederal government's legislative and rule-making processes, haspublished several reports on the burdens that federal policies imposeon small firms, among other topics.  And there are other entities suchas 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 thephenomenon of new firm formation and growth, the nature of theentrepreneur, the impact of entrepreneurship on the economy, and manyother areas. The Kauffman Foundation has also offered expertise onproven programs to increase interest and skills in entrepreneurship,such as FastTrac. With the Policy Dialogue on Entrepreneurship, we areworking to disseminate this knowledge among policymakers, while at thesame time informing about other relevant publications and encouraging aconversation on how entrepreneurship intersects with policy areasranging from health care to energy.

However, this still leavesthe fundamental question on the table.  Are policymakers hearing enoughfrom real entrepreneurs as opposed to necessity small business or arethey, as I fear, not really at the table in Washington? Evidence showsentrepreneurs have not had an influence on economic policy that ismeasurable to their role as drivers of economic growth. For instance, arecent Kauffman Foundation survey of entrepreneurs revealedthat quite a portion of entrepreneurs (53%) believe that the stimuluspackage has hurt entrepreneurial activity. The majority ofentrepreneurs also said they continue to struggle due to a worseningeconomy (59%) and that they want government to do more to encourageentrepreneurship (58%). Simply put, the majority of entrepreneurs donot share the increasing optimism on Wall Street.  Much as we hearevery elected official in Washington praise them, I am not entirelysure they really understand what inspires them and makes them tick.

I have talked before about one emerging network of young aspiringentrepreneurs and their supporters being developed within 85 countriesthrough 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 fromAmerica's fastest-growing companies gathered and where the KauffmanFoundation 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 engageentrepreneurs as well as supporters of entrepreneurship, uniting themto have a stronger voice in the public discussion about America’seconomic future. With more than 70 percent of voters saying thatentrepreneurs are important for the health of the economy, thismovement 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.


JonathanOrtmans is a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation where he focuseson public policies to promote entrepreneurship in the U.S. and aroundthe world. In addition, he serves as president of the Public ForumInstitute, a non-partisan organization dedicated to fostering dialogueon important policy issues.

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