I just read an article written by Joan Williams in Harvard Business Review titled "What So Many People Don't Get About the Working Class." She discussed reasons the nation is in the political state it's in, and the reaction the middle class has had after years of job losses and an overarching sense of being left behind.
The article resonated with me because I grew up in a conservative farming town of 8,000, attended a university known for its agricultural programs, and then went on to work at The Boeing Company for five years. I now live in liberal Seattle. I left Boeing to start a company, then worked in technology and management consulting in cities across the world, and now have started another company.
Having spent half my life on one side of the conversation and half on the other, I see entrepreneurs as the ones standing in the middle. What it takes to start, run, and grow a small business requires a multitude of skills, including but not limited to:
- Managing teams with empathy and understanding
- Making strategic hiring decisions
- Building a compelling story to get buyers in the door
- Following local policies, demographic shifts, and labor issues
- Keeping a national perspective when it comes to supply chain issues, taxes, and trend shifts
And so many people are impacted by a small business each day, whether as customers, employees, or founders. From an FAQ article written by SBA.gov in Sept, 2012:
"Small businesses make up: 99.7 percent of U.S. employer firms, 64 percent of net new private-sector jobs, 49.2 percent of private-sector employment, 42.9 percent of private-sector payroll, 46 percent of private-sector output, 43 percent of high-tech employment, 98 percent of firms exporting goods, and 33 percent of exporting value."
Although this information is almost five years old, the significance of small business hasn't changed much. From stories of Radiator Springs in the Pixar movie "Cars" to popular books like "Hillbilly Elegy" by J.D. Vance, it's not hard to find insights into the middle class struggle and see how it ties to small business ownership.
In Dr. Williams's article, she talks about the dream of owning a business and the scarcity-driven fear of feeling left out as blue-collar workers have found it harder to take care of their families, let alone take risks to get ahead.
So what does this mean for you? As a current or future entrepreneur, you have an opportunity (perhaps obligation?) to reach out in your community and help shape our nation in the coming years. The rest of this article contains some suggestions that will go a long way toward undoing the divisive rhetoric and populism facing all of us today.
1. Entrepreneurial viewpoints are contagious, so get to know someone you don't agree with
Too often we surround ourselves with perspectives and inputs that support what we already believe. As an entrepreneur, you get even less time to take in what's going on outside of your business, which means it can be harder to invest in a diversity of perspectives. Yet, finding at least one relationship--an actual person, please--that can help balance out bias means you'll be able to see where others are coming from more easily.
We all want to be heard and valued. As an entrepreneur, you can reflect that balanced perspective with the business community, employees, and customers you interact with every day. Imagine the impact of treating everyone with respect and common understanding. That can begin with you.
2. Focus on employee ownership
Scarcity, fear, and the instinct to survive drive people to make decisions against their own long-term interests. Many people in the U.S. have been feeling increasingly left out of the American dream. They feel left behind and without opportunity.
Creating a path for every employee to own a piece of the business is one way to help counter that. Whether it's allotting equity in your company or sponsoring employees to start their own ventures, ownership breeds a sense of purpose and pride that can be matched by few other things in a professional's life. From the pride of owning something, to the additional revenue that can come from the business succeeding, degrees of ownership can help rid individuals of that sense of scarcity.
3. Volunteer for small business workshops and literacy programs
Unemployment is historically low, but underemployment can be a bigger issue for people trying to provide a future for themselves and their families. Not only that, but job satisfaction has been shown to impact everything from health and energy, to community participation and healthy family life.
I've had the chance to meet with people all over the world, talking about innovation and discussing people's goals to create new things. Of the hundreds of people I've spoken to, many weren't happy in their jobs and wished they had the tools or abilities to do their own thing.
Barriers to making a change can include lack of education or skills, inexperience, or lack of knowledge about existing sources of funding. The right mentorship from people who have catapulted over similar obstacles may be part of the answer. Entrepreneurship isn't for everyone, but equipping more people with a path toward becoming one will help them create their own opportunities.
Furthermore, children of disadvantaged homes often struggle in school due to issues surrounding basic literacy. Those same children often grow up struggling to compete in everyday work environments. Consider volunteering your time to help kids get caught up. It can have a lasting impact and help each child feel like they have a shot at success.
4. Engage with your local government
Local issues lead to national campaigns. This election was won because small-town issues outweighed the opinions of urban populations. Wherever you live, there is a local community where people across many walks of life engage in issues that affect them. As an entrepreneur, you're a part of that conversation each day, possibly without knowing it. Consider then, how you can take a more active role in supporting initiatives that help everyone succeed. These may include:
- Fundraising for a new school
- Participating in a business plan competition
- Getting involved in ballot measures that locally could have a positive impact on economic growth.
Ridding your community of opportunity scarcity means we're all better off. It also helps reduce the effectiveness of fear mongering and hate.
5. Stop considering college as the only path to entry
Education is a traditional barrier in professional environments. Yet, I've worked with many smart people with only a high school education. Treating college as just one route to success rather than the only one is an important step. You can do this by:
- Supporting a trade school by volunteering for mentoring, guest speaking, and participating in hiring fairs
- Advocating for blue collar workers (ex: consider incorporating local fabrication shops into bids for product prototypes vs outsourcing everything).
- Considering skilled people for employment regardless of their backgrounds
People are feeling a divide, where those with formal educations are perceived as the "haves" and those without are the "have nots." As an entrepreneur, you may have insights into how to break down this divide within your own organization.
Consider how you might use these approaches in your own community, and leave comments below on other ideas that might help heal our country and world. As an entrepreneur, you're more equipped than you know to encourage change and help fix some of what is broken in our society.