When politicians meet Twitter the result is usually scandal. But Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) uses the social media platform in innovative ways, to inform his almost 1.5 million followers about his state, connect with his constituents, and spread his ideas and policies.
During a technology and social innovation small business forum, hosted at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey on Friday, Senator Booker told an audience of 400 how the government and the private sector can use social media, other Internet platforms, and a strong partnership with one another to spur entrepreneurship.
"We have to create a dynamic environment where government and the private sector can pull together reshaped resources and information for my larger goal of stimulating greater entrepreneur growth," he said.
He explained how important small businesses and entrepreneurs are to the U.S. economy, which he said account for two thirds of the job growth in the United States. The landscape is changing fast, thanks to easier access to capital through crowdfunding and technological advances that make it easier to launch new businesses.
"I grew up with parents who were entrepreneurial and I heard all the business axioms. The idea of location, location, location is no longer the case," Booker said. A business can leverage social media, its own website, and e-commerce options to achieve a presence far beyond Main Street. "This incredible digital space is driving the global economy," he said.
The greatest hurdle to success, Booker said, is your own mind: "The limits of what we can accomplish are defined by the courage of our imaginations."
While Booker was Mayor of Newark he had had his work cut out for him, economically and otherwise. Newark, the largest city in New Jersey, had a tax base that was disappearing and a population that had been declining for the last 60 years, yet Booker vowed to improve quality of life, reduce crime rates, and help citizens with affordable housing and health care. The event that propelled his efforts on to the national political scene serves as an ideal example of viral content marketing. It came in the form of a quip from Conan O'Bien on his late-might show:
"The Mayor of Newark, NJ wants to set up a city wide program to improve residents' health. The health care program would consist of a bus ticket out of Newark."
Instead of getting upset, Booker seized the opportunity to be creative and leverage Conan's Twitter following of 2.5 million and his own of 1 million. He made a video where he banned Conan from Newark Airport. "Try JFK, buddy." Conan responded by banning Booker from Burbank Airport, and Booker then banned him from the state of New Jersey. "CoCo can't GoGo," the video's tagline read. After the feud-in-jest went viral, Conan invited Booker on the show, they made peace, and Conan donated $100,000 to Newark charities.
"You need to be audaciously imaginative in order to transform yourself into a success," Booker said at the recent forum. "We all have multidisciplinary talents and have to use them, if you have more than two social media followers, you're a media syndicator. Everyone here is an entrepreneur and should think of themselves that way."
Inc. caught up with Senator Booker for a Q&A after his speech. Check out the conversation below.
Inc.: You and Rand Paul--the Senate's "odd couple"--have stepped across party lines to come up with reforms for the criminal justice system with the REDEEM Act. During a conversation with Politico, you said there's too much talk about party and not enough creation of policies. What policies are important to you?
Booker: For me, there are two major themes that should be the thrust: One is expanding economic opportunity in America. I'm here today because my parents came of age during an expanding economic landscape providing more opportunity and a better quality of life. The very idea of America is this idea that every generation, your kids, are going to get the chance to do better than you were able to do. I focus on policies that [try to answer] how do we as the government make decisions that provide economic growth, or get a return on investment of American tax dollars. Are we wasting tax dollars in the criminal justice system? Or are we investing tax dollars in things like infrastructure that provide even more economic growth?
The second area is fairness in America, the idea that everybody should have a fair shot. Whether you're first generation immigrant, transgender, minority, born poor, everybody should get a fair shot. That's why things like raising the minimum wage and helping to fight to make sure a woman who does the same job as a man gets the same pay are important. These are the two policy areas I tend to focus on: economic growth and expansion and fairness. Sometimes they overlap, like college affordability, the fact that Americans need to spend 51 percent of medium income to go to college, and our competitor nations like Germany pays around 4 percent, and Canada pays around 5 percent. That's an issue around equity--everyone should have a shot to get a higher education And it's an issue of competitiveness. Our competitors know that in a global knowledge-based economy, the most valuable natural resource you have is the genius of your population, and we have to do everything we can to stimulate that.
Inc.: Going back to you and Rand Paul's "bromance," has having a partner with very different beliefs helped you be a better politician? Should founders and business owners take a lesson from that?
Booker: At the end of the day, I believe that uncommon coalitions produce uncommon results, in business or anything else. What happened when women entered the workforce? A boom to our economy. What happened when we gave African Americans, or the Irish, going back even further, or Italians, going back even further...a fair shot? They drove our economy forward. We're still benefiting from the genius of that innovation. I've always drawn great thoughts from folks on both sides of the aisle. Whether it's a guy like Jack Kemp or a guy like Bill Bradley, one of my first influencers, and who co-hosted my first D.C. fundraiser. When I was mayor I was able to partner with the Manhattan Institute and Chris Christie. Did we agree on all issues? No, but we were able to find some common ground to make a difference.
Inc.: Today was not the first time you've talked about how in order to be a successful entrepreneur you have to be a multi-faceted person, about the value of not pigeon-holing yourself into one role. Can you elaborate?
Booker: I really found out as Mayor of Newark that the more I thought about myself not just as a government actor [but as a] partner with philanthropists, businesses, and media companies that I could do some pretty incredible things. I'll never forget what happened after the Conan controversy: We partnered with philanthropists, pharmacies and primary care doctors, to do a great program, find ways to collaborate and build an innovative model that helped drive down medical costs, and elevate human health. I started to realize as mayor, while I was managing the city I had to get creative to engage people in uncommon ways to produce uncommon results. I governed during the worst economy of our lifetime and got handed a horrible hand of cards but I was able to create the largest parks expansion in our city in over a century. We couldn't do these things without partners.
Inc.: Serving on the Committee for Small Business and Entrepreneurship, what are three things that government can and should do to help entrepreneurs?
Booker: One is access to capital, that's big, and finding ways we can help. I see other nations like Israel investing in VC funds; we need to focus on that. Number two is to empower our workforce. The first piece of legislation I introduced was about apprenticeship programs because we need to have a pipeline for the next leaders. Three is infrastructure, which sounds boring but it's anything from aviation infrastructure to grid technology--that will create a climate and platform for entrepreneurs to be successful.
Inc.: Washington state opened its first recreational marijuana stores this week, and entrepreneurs have ushered in a boom across Colorado in that sector. Meanwhile you've talked about lowering certain drug penalties for juveniles. What do you think marijuana's value is in terms of economic growth and entrepreneurship, versus its role in incarcerations?
Booker: This is a really valuable American laboratory. The legalization debate, on which I don't know where I come down on yet, [will allow us to see how] certain legitimate concerns manifest themselves. Where I take it now is to do things to protect people who are abiding by state laws. For me, that's why I introduced the legislation around medical marijuana with Rand Paul--we don't want to see the federal government prosecuting people abiding state laws. I am encouraged voters stepped out into this laboratory. If it's a failure, it's a failure. But if it's a success and it doesn't hurt public safety and improves the economy by providing greater opportunities, and doesn't cause more crime, then I will be open to legalization. But right now I fall on not doing it, but I am one of those people who is hungry to watch it play out. Medical marijuana programs, like the one in New Jersey, are something I think should be in every state; the drugs people have in their medicine cabinets are more dangerous than marijuana. It's ridiculous to not let very sick people have access to a drug, a legitimate drug, that can help improve their lives.