At the second White House Conference on Small Business, which is planned for August of next year in Washington, D.C., we in the entrepreneurial community can stake out a dynamic growth agenda that will fuel this country's economy for the rest of this century and into the next. Or we can complain about this or that injustice, carp about this or that regulation, and fight for more federal handouts.
It all depends on how we answer one question: Is the conference about smallness, or is it about growth?
A conference focused on smallness would worry about the future of the Small Business Administration loan program, about how to define "small," and about bigger procurement set-asides for small business.
A conference devoted to a growth agenda, on the other hand, would emphasize market forces and incentives. It would seek to link specific tax, grant, and procurement policies to such national strategic goals as technological innovation, managerial ingenuity, productivity, job creation, industrial competitiveness, increased trade, and greater economic opportunity. Conversely, it would avoid further tinkering with programs that foster a business-welfare mentality and that treat the entrepreneurial sector as just another special interest rather than as a powerful engine of growth.
To formulate such an aggressive agenda, however, we will have to change the way we think. Five years ago, delegates to the first White House Conference on Small Business, myself included, formulated a laundry list of 60 tactical recommendations, many of which arose from narrow small-business themes, such as providing special consideration to veterans in business.
At the next White House Conference, we need to do more than draw up another laundry list. We need to think strategically about the future and its opportunities.
Establishing a consensus on overarching strategic objectives -- and developing both an annual and a longer-range plan to achieve them -- would give the entrepreneurial sector a strong and coherent voice in national debates over, for example, tax, foreign trade, and economic policies. This is the sort of influence we have never had before -- because, divided and cacophonous, small-business factions have, in the past, effectively canceled out each other's lobbying efforts.
This strategy of consensus will require courage on the part of the small business associations. Each of them -- the National Federation of Independent Business, National Small Business Association, National Association of Women Business Owners, Small Business United, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and others -- will have to sacrifice some of its own pet issues for the larger goal. The strategy will demand self-discipline on the part of the individuals who help shape the conference agenda in the state meetings scheduled to take place during the next 18 months, and on the part of the conference delegates themselves.
All the parties involved will need some criteria by which to separate the narrow from the broad, the trivial from the significant. They will need to ask themselves:
* Does this policy proposal meet the needs of the entrepreneurial sector? Does it foster economic growth? Will it encourage job creation, risk-taking, innovation, competition, more international trade, and enhanced industrial competitiveness?
* Does it rely on incentives rather than regulations, carrots rather than sticks?
* Does it mean more federal spending?If so, is there a substantial return on that investment?
Proposals that encourage smallness for its own sake, that discourage growth or emphasize regulations, that reward inefficiency and dependency, or that are too costly would be thrown out. Those that pass muster would become our national agenda for entrepreneurship and economic growth.
Concentrating of a few items of overriding strategic value, rather than on our usual plethora of issues, will enable the entrepreneurial sector not only to shape the public-policy debate, but to be far more effective in getting its agenda enacted as well.
Likewise, Congress should be urged to think in strategic terms. Our challenge is to educate policymakers to the fact that risk, entrepreneurship, innovation, and growth are not liberal or conservative issues; rather, they represent an urgent national priority that Congress must address if we are to maintain our industrial competitiveness, create jobs, and expand economic opportunity.
The 1980 White House Conference on Small Business developed visibility for small business issues, provided a grass-roots education for a large number of people who had never before been involved in shaping public policy, and stimulated a wave of reform measures in Congress. The second White House Conference should aim to do more than just repeat the accomplishments of the first. It should embolden Congress to elevate risk, innovation, entrepreneurship, and growth to the status of national policies that propel the American economy into the twenty-first century.