Entrepreneurs Tackle Politics

Left out of the Presidential campaign, a league of entrepreneurs gets ready to step up

The country's 27 million entrepreneurs far outnumber hockey moms and soccer moms, and provide serious competition for all those NASCAR dads. Yet we've heard very little of substance from the Presidential candidates about small business.

So perhaps it's not surprising that of 1,000 business owners surveyed by Discover Small Business Watch in June, only 14% thought the Presidential race offered a forum for their concerns. "Small businesses...feel they are not really being considered as a major issue in the political campaign," says Ryan Scully, director of Discover's business card and the lead researcher on the study. Some 71% of entrepreneurs in a September George S. May International poll couldn't name any way in which either candidate would help their business.

Although a coterie of fast-growing companies is poised to become more influential in national policies, for now, much of the action is at the state level. Amy Hawkins, co-owner of Boulder Roofing in Boulder, Colo., with 33 employees and $3.5 million in annual sales, is working with other small business owners to defeat Amendment 56, a ballot initiative that would require Colorado companies with more than 20 employees to provide health insurance. "When something comes up on a state level like Amendment 56, we feel we can tackle it," she says. "It is a little more tricky to feel as involved with national issues."

That leaves national business groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and a slew of small business membership organizations to pick up the slack. Each tackles a slice of small business concerns based on the priorities of their membership. But even the largest of these groups, the National Federation of Independent Business, with about 350,000 members, can't represent all entrepreneurs. "How are they certain the perspective they are representing represents the whole?" asks Greg Fairchild, associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. The NFIB doesn't necessarily disagree: "Pretty much everything we do comes from our membership," says Donald Danner, the group's executive vice-president.


While small businesses as a whole may be too diverse to be represented by any one group, a subset of about 30% of entrepreneurs, whose fast-growing companies take them outside their local geographic sphere, may have much more in common. Karen Mills, a venture capitalist in Brunswick, Me., who is known for her research on small companies, thinks this 30% could soon emerge as power players in national politics. "Small, entrepreneurial businesses based on innovation are gathering up to get a bigger voice, and they are starting to reach out to each other so they can get more access and visibility in Washington," she says. "When they have a mission in mind...they are highly active."

Ken Priest certainly is. He's the owner of Kenway in Augusta, Me., a 78-employee, $7 million company that makes marine fiberglass products. He sits on the boards of two state industry councils and has helped win federal grants of up to $25,000 for nearly 75 Maine companies. "A lot of small business owners are either just too busy or just not as comfortable dealing with the state and federal folks as I am," Priest says. If others follow his example, maybe the next Presidential candidates will have more to say about small companies.

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