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Entrepreneurs, Policy Makers Discuss What's Working and Share Advice

The Atlantic's 2014 Small Business Forum

By Martin Feeney

 

From within the ultra modern, concrete-exposed confines of Washington's 1776, a startup incubator, The Atlantic Magazine hosted its annual Small Business Forum.  Representative Judy Chu (D-CA) kicked off the morning's session with a bang. The recently passed defense authorization bill included sole source authority for the Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) Procurement Program.  This is a major victory for all women business owners and is something we've been advocating for many years. According to Rep. Chu, other changes for small businesses included in the defense bill are limitations on reverse auctions, changes to subcontracting, and review of contract bundling.

 

When the new Congress convenes in January, Rep. Chu shared her plans to introduce a bill to restart the refinance section under the SBA's 504 commercial real-estate loan program.  It allowed small businesses to cut costs by refinance existing commercial property loans at today's low interest rates, but it expired in 2012.  We look forward to working with her next year to make this a reality.

 

Many of the morning's panelists, including SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet, the National Journal's Fawn Johnson, 1776 Co-Founder Evan Burfield, and the founders of two of DC's favorite establishments, Ben's Chili Bowl's Nazim Ali and Port City Brewing Company's Bill Butcher, all agreed that access to capital remains the major obstacle for startups.  Port City's Bill Butcher recalled his attempts to get a loan to start Washington's first brewery since prohibition.  Despite success in the winemaking industry and having his personal finances in order, he heard the all-too-familiar refrain from the first ten banks he tried: "sorry, we only lend to businesses that are at least 24 months old."  His advice: "keep trying," he said, "and learn from your failures and mistakes."  Luckily for beer lovers, Port City was able to obtain an SBA loan with some business counseling. 

 

With respect to what the government is doing, the SBA's Maria Contreras-Sweet highlighted initiatives specifically designed for small businesses.  On lending, she noted that the SBA waived fees on 7(a) loans below $150,000 last year and has committed to continuing through September 2015.  According to her, this has resulted in increased loans to the smallest businesses, including those run by women and minorities.  To boost the number of microloans (loans up to $50,000), the SBA plans to enter into an agreement with credit unions, which will increase the program's reach into more communities across the country. 

 

On technology and how the SBA is innovating, Administrator Contreras-Sweet also announced SBA One. The online platform will automate the application and approval process for almost all SBA loans.  She likened the idea to what TurboTax did for filing taxes by making the entire process online and automated.  No more paperwork or headaches?  Sounds like a great idea me.  SBA One is expected to launch in the second quarter of 2015. 

 

From the private sector's perspective, Bank of America's chief small business lender, Robb Hilson, shared a couple of statistics about generational approaches to entrepreneurship.  Not surprisingly, millennials are the most confident when it comes to taking the leap and starting a business.  But they're also the most dependent on technology, with 44% saying they wouldn't be able to survive without a smartphone.  Surprisingly, on the other end of the spectrum, encore entrepreneurs (those aged 50+), often considered the luddites of the entrepreneurial world, is in fact the age group most likely to do so following the millennial generation.

 

At the end of each panel, each participant was asked for the one piece of advice each would give an aspiring entrepreneur.  I think Ben's Mr. Ali framed it perfectly: "know your community, know your neighbors, and know what they want."  He credited this advice, passed down from his father who founded Ben's Chili Bowl almost 60 years ago, with the famed restaurant's continued success.  They've been able to succeed in their community because they're a part of it and know their needs and desires. 

 

So here's my piece of advice: If you're ever in Washington and haven't already, make sure to support these local entrepreneurs...legends by grabbing a Ben's Half-Smoke and a pint of Port City's IPA. You won't regret it.

 

All told, the forum offered a wide range of perspectives, including experiences, lessons learned, opportunities, and thoughts on the state of small business in general.  I encourage you to watch the webcast if you haven't had the chance to do so yet.   

 

 

New Report from the White House Council on Women and Girls

 

This month the White House released a report on the status of women and girls of color in the United States. The report, compiled by the White House Council on Women and Girls, covers everything from education to criminal and juvenile justice, and is an important step in assessing the policies that have had a positive impact, as well as areas that could be improved. 

 

According to the report, women of color have made great economic gains over the last 5 years, including increasingly choosing careers in entrepreneurship. Black women-owned business increased by 258 percent from 1997-2013, while Hispanic women-owned businesses increased by 180 percent, Asian American women-owned businesses by 156 percent and American Indian/Alaska Native women-owned businesses increased by 108 percent. As the rate of women entrepreneurship has risen, so has the number of small business loans made to women. From fiscal year 2013-2014, the SBA has increased the number of 7(a) loans made to women in all areas, including Black, Hispanic, AAPI and American Indian/Alaska Native women. 

 

In addition to the increasing number of SBA loans made to women of color, we have also seen more government programs focused on providing women with the tools they need to make their businesses successful. Nearly one third of businesses in the SBA 8(a) Business Development Program are women-owned, while the Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program has increased the number of federal contracting dollars going to women-owned small businesses by 7.5 percent between 2012 and 2013. 


Despite these gains, women of color still have many barriers facing their economic success. High rates of unemployment, unequal pay, and under-representation in management positions affect all women, but have a larger impact on women of color. As President Obama noted, women of color "struggle ever day with biases that perpetuate oppressive standards for how they're supposed to look and how they're supposed to act. Too often they're either left under the hard light of scrutiny, or cloaked in a kind of invisibility". In order to combat these challenges, it's necessary to look at both race and gender as barriers to success, and to understand the complexity that occurs when they intersect.
 

It is a quarter of a century since the Women's Business Ownership Act was passed.  It didn't happen suddenly, it happened because a group of twelve pioneering women business owners in Washington, DC began meeting informally in the 1970s to discuss their difficulty in getting federal contracts, and expanded to a vision that would result in the Women's Business Ownership Act (HR 5050) in 1988.  These women, and that Act, changed the focus, forever, of the role women business owners would play in shaping public policy, as well as their impact in our national economy.


As a result of their effort, a movement was begun to drive change, and it resulted in the birth of NAWBO, the National Association of Women Business Owners, which incorporated in 1975.  These amazing twelve women identified allies in Congress from both parties, in the Executive Branch, and in the SBA, and sought to debunk myths and the many misconceptions our government representatives had about women-owned businesses.  Because of them, no longer would women business owners be solely categorized as crafters, a misperception which prevented them from being taken seriously by policy makers and the media.

They knew that research was critical to the effort, and in fact, it demonstrated that a significant percentage generated more than a million dollars a year in sales and owned significant companies.  This research was the catalyst for a commitment to powerful data and statistics, and provided the ammunition needed to develop policy recommendations for government action.

And so began the road to national political activism, centered around a vision which resulted in supportive language about women's entrepreneurship in both the Democratic and Republican party platforms in 1984, and then a political awakening at the 1986 White House Conference on Small Business.  There were so many heroes throughout this movement as well as during the White House Conference on Small Business.  Among them were Virginia Littlejohn, Gillian Rudd, Laura Henderson, Olive Rosen, Charlotte Taylor, Susan Hager, Hope Eastman, Susan Winer, Susan Chaires, and so many, many more.  They worked tirelessly to train, to develop forward looking policy recommendations (which were published as "Framework for the Future") and to build state delegations and coalitions.  Terry Neese and I, cofounders of WIPP, circled the country to train and introduce the importance of advocacy for public policies that impacted their businesses.   My company, Voice-Tel, provided the technology that connected women, provided briefings and updates and kept us inspired.  NAWBO captured 12% of the delegates, more than the US Chamber of Commerce or the National Federation of Independent Business, and managed to get 15 of our members elected as chairs or co-chairs of their state delegations.  NAWBO got 26 of its 27 issues adopted!

Emboldened with our successes at the 1986 White House Conference, it was clear that we were able to influence policies to address gaps.  NAWBO's President, Gillian Rudd, spoke with Congressman John LaFalce (D-NY) Chair of the House Small Business Committee and requested that hearings be held on women's entrepreneurship - the answer was yes!  Four major gaps were identified to focus on, witnesses for hearings were identified and trained, Congressional allies and champions identified  (Congresswoman Lindy Boggs (D0LA) and Senator Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS).  Hope Eastman assisted in drafting legislative language and a grassroots network around the country was established to lobby for the House Resolution (HR 5050) through to passage.  

HR 5050, P.L. 100-533 was passed, and President Reagan signed it into law on October 25, 1988, to address the needs of women in business by giving women entrepreneurs recognition and resources, and by eliminating discriminatory lending practices by banks that favored male business owners, and has had considerable impact. HR 5050 has had a profound impact for tens of thousands of women business owners, and for me, and it has been a catalyst for the establishment of WIPP.  

There are more players in our ecosystem today, women leaders who have emerged and who have joined forces to continue to address specific needs, and who are working to play for our path forward.  The road ahead looks promising, with the development of The Roadmap to 2020:  Fueling the Growth of Women's Enterprise Development, led by Virginia Littlejohn.

We will celebrate the 25th anniversary of HR 5050 together, celebrate its achievements, and look ahead to our 50th in 2038.   My thanks to my dear friend Virginia Littlejohn, a brilliant thinker and influencer, who was a significant force and voice in HR 5050, and provided much of this history, to NAWBO and its extraordinary leadership and vision who brought us here today, and to all the amazing and courageous women who have made it all possible - all heroines for yesterday, today and tomorrow.  We have more to do, but thanks to them, we are on firm footing.






What is spectrum, and why do I care?

11:20 AM September 28, 2012

i read a great definition on the broadband.gov site that you should take a few minutes to read because it is important to your business.  Allow me to excerpt a few relevant points:



That last sentence that I put in bold is the important one for us! Can we as business owners who use the internet day in and day out to research, to innovate, to help grow our businesses be limited because there is not adequate spectrum?   I think not!

Virtually everyone - industry experts, telecommunications companies, policy makers, and the FCC itself - has acknowledged that the looming spectrum crisis must be avoided.  But solutions, especially fast solutions, have been hard to come by.  FCC Chair Genachowski recently reiterated his commitment to clearing spectrum for auction, but also made the point that this was merely one part of the solution to our country's spectrum challenges.

This is a business issue we must pay attention to.  For most of us, it is not, at first glance, a priority issue.   However - once things start slowing down, once access is not as easy or as readily available, this issue will rise quickly on our priority lists.  Lets not wait until it is a crisis.  It's time to pay attention now.

43% of standing Congressional Committees and 42.8% of select Joint Committee Hearings did not include women.  WIPP finds women excluded.  See report at wipp.org 


The Losers:

Senate Committees Featuring the Fewest Women:

Armed Services Committee:  83%
Budget Committee: 60%
Foreign Relations 59.26%

House Committees Featuring Fewest Women:

Armed Services:  59.29%
Homeland Security: 58%
Transportation and Infrastructure: 57.69%

The Winners:

Senate Committees Featuring the Most Women

Health, Education, Labor & Pension:  88%
Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry: 77.78%
Judiciary:  76.09%

House Committees Featuring the Most Women

Veteran Affairs:  86.36%
Education and Workforce:  83.35%
Appropriations:  66.6%

 

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