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CEOs' Burning Questions to the President

We asked members of the Inc. community what one question they want the president to address in Tuesday night's State of the Union. Here's what they had to say.
Jon Burgstone, managing director at Symbol Capital, with President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama will deliver his third State of the Union address tonight at 9 p.m. ET to a joint session of Congress and millions of viewers on television and online. This will be his chance to steal attention from the Republican presidential nominees, who have already charged that the address will be a rehashing of old ideas.

With his own re-election campaign at stake, this will be the president's opportunity to address the attacks that GOP opponents have been launching at him daily on issues of the economy, government spending and national debt, the war in Iraq, and health care.

This is Obama's best chance to offer a vision for a second term--so we thought it would be a great idea to ask Inc. readers and many on the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing companies in the U.S. what one question they would like to ask the President. The answers could help how these engines of the economy will vote in the 2012 election:

From Shazi Visram, CEO and Founder of HAPPYFAMILY, which makes organic food and snacks for babies and children:

I am personally so very aware of the multitude of challenges facing start-ups in general, it is a daunting task. Even for HappyFamily, a company that is just beyond start-up stage and has a massive growth opportunity, we are restrained by not having more options to institutional debt for working capital. Most banks require two to three years of profitable tax returns before considering debt as an option, which is difficult if you are just getting started. My concern is that if we do not invest more dollars in innovation, new enterprise and these potential job creators, with additional focus and support to encourage them to take the leap, that many great ideas and strong innovations could be missed opportunities for the country.

Entrepreneurship and innovation are the fundamentals of the strong economy America has built, and it’s very clear that we need to turn back and put more emphasis on innovation in order to help get us out of the recession and create new jobs in the marketplace, yet it is challenging to launch a small business in an economy that has incredibly tough credit constraints. What would you do in the coming to term to support small businesses and encourage private investing?

From Rene Shimada Siegel, founder and CEO of High Tech Connect, an agency that provides marketing consultants:

The independent labor force is the fastest-growing segment of the American workforce today, and is expected to grow from 16 million to more than 21 million over the next few years. Because they’re cost-effective and independent, these independents are going to help small businesses augment regular staff. Some of them are going to turn into small businesses, and that’s going to stimulate employment. In fact, like me, many independent business owners start as sole proprietors and evolve into small businesses that employ others. So if you’re going to stimulate the economy, why don’t you help support those budding seeds—the independents that will soon be business owners?

 "The President should change the name of the Small Business Administration to something like the Entrepreneurial Opportunity Administration. Names mean a lot." -Jon Burgstone, managing director at Symbol Capital

From Eron Zehavi, chief rewards officer and co-founder of Prodégé, an advertising and marketing firm that offers "virtual currency" to its users, in exchange for their registration, every time they search, purchase, play games, and share opinions online:

There is an alarming growth rate of obesity among Americans, as well as those inflicted with diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes. At the same time, consumption of high fructose corn syrup has risen at parallel rates and the number of feedlot cattle being fed corn instead of grass is at an all time high. Given that the government has paid over 77 billion dollars in corn subsidies since 1995, it can be argued that the government is really subsidizing obesity and poor nutrition. What is your plan to remedy this situation?

From Andy Levine, founder of Sixthman, which designs theme cruises with an emphasis on celebrating the communities around pop musicians and their fans:

People need confidence that we are moving in some direction instead of gridlock. And when our elected leaders can't make decisions it sets a bad example to the rest of the country. What is he planning to do differently to give us confidence that he and congress can actually make decisions and move forward on issues?

We are an overweight and in-debt nation because of choices we make. What is the plan to educate the country about the relationship with food and money so that young people have the tools to build smart habits and disciplined lifestyle?

I believe the two issues are related to one another and am curious why it is not a critical part of the education system from an early age. No one feels better in their live than when they achieve physical and financial health. As a nation, we know more about taking care of our cars and gadgets then we do about our bodies and our finances. We are born free but then make ourselves slaves by falling into traps that were set by the generation before us. When America begins making good choices around food and money, we will be the best example for the rest of the world.

From Vlukhbir (Luke) Roopra, CEO and founder of Vertiglo, a web development and brand management firm:

I feel the president is on point with a few of the agenda items he has already laid out. I specifically would like to see more [help] for small businesses that want to export. It’s important for a business owner to understand that there are greater markets than in the U.S. to sell their products and services. If U.S. firms receive assistance in reaching markets in the Middle East or North Africa, or in the EU, it will create a huge wave of other opportunities."

From Cary Daniel, CEO and co-founder of human resources company Nextaff:

No business owner I know has ever said, 'We're going to increase hiring because we're getting a $1,500 tax credit.' These hiring incentives are so complicated for the average small business person to understand, manage, track and apply for, that they are worthless. What's Plan B?

From Robert Litan, vice president of research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation:

It would be great if the president endorsed the bipartisan Start-up Act (Moran/Warner co-sponsors). Some of the ideas are the administration's, others have been advocated by Republicans, it would be an ideal way for the president to show he is willing to work with both parties, an important political asset given that the independent vote will almost certainly determine the outcome of the 2012 election.

From Glen Blickenstaff, CEO of The Iron Door Company, makers and distributors of high-end, hand-forged doors and windows:

When the recession started small business access to traditional forms of capital dried up substantially. Even traditional equity investors would only invest in a company like ours through a debt mechanism that subordinated other debt and came with high interest rates. We experienced our 1,839 percent growth by borrowing at an extremely high interest rate from private individuals. That high interest rate continues to reduce our ability to fund continued growth and new jobs and the debt on our balance sheet, along with tighter lending practices continues to preclude us from seeking capital. We actually had to cool sales last year because we could not continue to fund the growth.

Small business employs half of all private sector workers and has generated 65 percent of net new jobs over the past 17 years, according to the SBA.
 
Your predecessor and you invested in the economy through TARP. That investment was in large measure utilized to prop up the effects of financial institutions and large companies; many with a track record of poor balance sheets. Yet, only 2 percent of the TARP funds were dedicated to small business. What will your administration do to tap into the small business community to help create and sustain new jobs?

From Matthew Swyers, founder of The Trademark Company, a web-based law firm specializing in protecting the trademark rights of small to medium-sized businesses:

During your first term your administration’s agenda, as set forth during your presidential campaign, was slowed if not largely frustrated by the White House’s inability to negotiate and compromise with the Republican-controlled House. The detriment of this inability to compromise has not been felt by those who refuse to work together–they have jobs–but by the American public–those who have placed their faith in your White House and Congress as a whole. The inability to compromise can never be attributed to one party but on all parties involved in negotiations. So both sides, the White House and Congress, are to blame. With almost every model showing that the Republicans will hold the House in November, what would you do differently to reach compromises with the Republican-controlled House to benefit all of your combined constituents–the American people-if you are elected to a second term?

From Josef Gorowitz, the CEO of Prodégé, which offers "virtual currency" to its users, in exchange for their registration, every time they search, purchase, play games, and share opinions online:

While we do supply healthcare to our employees and look to give them the most benefits possible, as a company that is growing fast and is nearing the 50 employee mark, wouldn't it be easier for us to grow if there was an incentive to hire, not an obstacle? Will you consider removing the healthcare mandate for companies that have over 50 employees while this economy grows?

From Karl Stark, co-founder of Avondale, a strategic advisory firm focused on growing companies:

We have one key employee who is a South Korean citizen, and we've gone through a lot of time and expense to retain him. It's feasible for us because we know he is key to our business, but there are many other talented individuals where it just doesn't make sense to incur the risk and expense of bringing them on. Many of these young people come to the U.S. for their education, are well-qualified to help grow companies and start companies, want to build businesses in the U.S. where they will create jobs, but they are forced to return to their home country and invest there instead. These are not the faces of the immigration debate, but I believe they have more impact on the U.S. economy.

What will you do to allow U.S. companies to better access the best talent around the world and encourage more entrepreneurs and investors to build businesses in the U.S. rather than more entrepreneurial friendly countries?

We are also incubating a number of businesses and considering others that could benefit from low-cost, technically competent workers that exist in other countries. But, it's not always feasible to "outsource to India" and work remotely. There is no question in my mind that one of the best "stimulus" packages would be to allow highly-skilled, low-cost workers to come to the U.S. temporarily. It would spur entrepreneurs to start businesses and take risks that would otherwise be cost prohibitive with relatively higher U.S. wages.

From Jose Prendes, founder and CEO of PureFormulas.com, an online retailer of more than 14,000 pharmaceutical-grade nutritional supplements:

Why are companies are sending jobs overseas? Why is it harder for these companies to conduct business in the U.S. instead of easier (impossible regulations, high taxes, fear of lawsuits, unions). In my opinion, these companies go oversears to escape high costs. What is making it more expensive to operate here in the U.S.? I'd like the president to talk about that, once again, but honestly, even if it goes against his personal beliefs.

From Michael Mothner, founder and CEO of Wpromote, which develops and manages search engine marketing campaigns, and provides expertise in search engine optimization, pay-per-click management, and local and viral Internet marketing campaigns:

How do you plan on getting something done in an election year while working with a Congress that does not necessarily agree with you? At this point where the economy is starting to show some positive signs it's important to continue the momentum and not allow politics to get in the way.

From Zalmi Duchman, founder and CEO of The Fresh Diet, which delivers healthy prepared food to clients in the U.S. and Canada:

How will you make it easier for me to get an SBA loan? I want to hear more about your upgrading the SBA director to cabinet member, and I am looking for the president to push for the employer payroll tax cut he introduced in his original jobs bill. He should call out that both sides may have issues against Wall Street or big government but they need to come together on supporting small business the engine of our economy.

Jon Burgstone, managing director at Symbol Capital and adjunct professor of engineering at UC Berkeley:

I've said these things directly to the president and members of the administration so I might as well say them on Inc.com. We need to offer more Americans better educational options to become great entrepreneurs. All net new job growth over the past two decades has come from small businesses.  Yet, 95 percent of new businesses fail within the first few years. The country needs to teach aspiring entrepreneurs how to find the right opportunity, hire, serve customers well, develop good relationships with suppliers and grow their businesses. Our education system does not teach people how to build a business-it should.

We also need to encourage the best international students to stay in the U.S. Our universities educate many thousands of very bright international students in engineering, science, math and other strategic disciplines. Upon graduation, we force them to return to their home countries. The best students, in the most promising fields, should be given preference in obtaining green cards and a path toward citizenship. America is about attracting hard-working, motivated people from around the world. Why educate them, if we then force them to leave?

On the other hand, our country needs to develop a better system of educating skilled workers, similar to programs in Germany and elsewhere. A high-tech society needs technologically savvy workers. We need to develop a better system of post-high school education where students who are not bound for university can develop the skills they need to obtain good-paying jobs in high-tech, energy, medical professions, etc.

Lastly, the president should change the name of the Small Business Administration to something like the Entrepreneurial Opportunity Administration. Names mean a lot.

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Last updated: Jan 24, 2012

NICOLE MARIE RICHARDSON | Staff Writer | Executive Editor, Special Projects, Inc.com

Nicole Marie Richardson is the executive editor for special projects at Inc.com. She manages the website's largest projects, including the Inc. 5000, an annual list of the fastest-growing, privately-held companies in America.

KIMBERLY WEISUL | Staff Writer | Inc.com Editor-at-Large

Kimberly Weisul is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.

ERIC SCHURENBERG | Staff Writer | Editor-in-chief, Inc.

Eric Schurenberg is the president and editor-in-chief of Inc. Before joining Inc, Eric was the editor of CBS MoneyWatch.com and BNET.com and managing editor of Money Magazine. As a writer, he is a winner of a Loeb and a National Magazine Award.




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