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Entrepreneurship Front & Center at Republican National Convention

Small business owners note a super-charged environment for them during this election year.
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Small business owners are already taking center stage this election season, as was evident at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday night in Tampa.

The Republican National Committee is portraying small business owners as the job creators likely to haul the U.S. out of its economic quagmire. They chose the "We Built It" convention theme, which obviously knocks President Obama's "You Didn't Build That" entrepreneur speech earlier this year, and also featured primetime addresses from speakers like Sher Valenzuela, a candidate for lieutenant governor of Delaware, who spoke about the industrial upholstery business she created with her husband, and governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, whose parents immigrated from India and are small business owners.

Even Hurricane Isaac, which gave Tampa a pass, proved a boon to local business owners. Though the threat of the storm scuttled the opening of the convention, and potentially the hopes of the city's many entrepreneurs, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce estimates local businesses in the area will reap about $151 million in revenue from events and the influx of delegates.

"The storm missed us by a wide mark," says Bob Rohrlack, president and chief executive of the chamber, who adds the extra day on Monday gave delegates, who would otherwise be inside the Tampa Convention Center, time to shop or spend money on other activities with local merchants.

The emphasis on small business is likely to be a sustained note in both conventions and throughout the election year.

"The economy is the focus during this election cycle, and there's a return to understanding where employment and economic growth comes from, that the net new jobs over the 30-year period from 1975 to 2005 come from companies less than five years old," says Scott Case, chief executive of Startup America, and a co-founder of Priceline.com.

Case moderated a panel on Wednesday at the RNC about ways to solve the U.S. job crisis.

Startup America, a network of start-up founders, was a significant part of the convention lineup today. The small business group, founded about 18 months ago, is hosting panels, which are being put on in conjunction with The Huffington Post, ranging on topics from how to create jobs to the role of government in entrepreneurship.

The Startup America morning round of panels featured a discussion about how women perceive their roles as executives compared to male peers, and the sacrifices female chief executives need to make to start their own companies.

"Women entrepreneurs in general are a really dynamic group," says Heather Kenyon, chief executive of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, and the panel moderator.

Startup America is also behind a start-up "expo," where about 100 start-ups from around the country pitch their businesses. 

Among the expo attendees is Lou Aronson, whose company Votifi is a social network meant to make politics and political discussions more civil. Votifi lets people with similar views discuss political topics and organize. It also doubles as an information lab for voter trends. Launched in late 2011, Votifi has four full-time employees and 90,000 users.

"Every convention needs its catch-phrase, and I am excited that this one is talking about creating business and creating jobs," Aronson says, referring to the "We Built It" theme.

Startup America will also present at the Democratic National Convention next week in Charlotte.

But some entrepreneurs, like Zalmi Duchman, founder of the Fresh Diet, an online provider of fresh meals, and a panelist for a discussion on the role of government regulation in business, says both parties could improve their engagement with entrepreneurs.

Duchman says he was disappointed that advertising and capital formation provisions of the JOBS act, signed by President Obama this spring, have still not been approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Duchman launched his business with the assistance of a $900,000 Small Business Administration loan in 2008. The Fresh Diet, which was No. 281 on last year's Inc. 500 list, now employs 200 people full time.

"I built my company, but I can also say the government helped me build it," Duchman says. 

IMAGE: Mallory Benedict/PBS NewsHour
Last updated: Aug 29, 2012

JEREMY QUITTNER | Staff Writer | Staff Writer, Inc. and Inc.com

Jeremy Quittner is a staff writer for Inc. magazine and Inc.com. He previously covered technology for American Banker and entrepreneurship for BusinessWeek.




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