When it comes to national politics, many small-business owners feel there’s lack of attention to ensure their unique concerns. While politicians love to talk up small businesses in their speeches, the policies enacted may not feel so supportive.
Certain individuals, however, are looking out for small businesses’ interests and making sure those issues stay at the forefront of the national debate. It’s not an easy job, though: Fortune 500 corporations can pay big money to lobbyists to push their interests, which aren't always aligned with the interests of smaller companies. And even if they could pool financial resources, surveys continually show that small-business owners are politically divided on everything from raising the minimum wage to health-care reform.
So who’s trying to help business owners get their needs met in Washington? As National Small Business Week commences, it’s a good time to highlight some of the more ardent advocates. This surely isn’t a complete list, but here’s a look at four people who are trying to make a big difference for small businesses.
Todd McCracken, President and CEO of the National Small Business Association
Todd McCracken has spent nearly 30 years lobbying for small businesses. He started as a legislative assistant at the National Small Business Association (NSBA) in 1988 and became president of the organization in 1997.
McCracken says his organization, which has about 65,000 members (each with an average of 18 employees), prides itself on being nonpartisan, unlike other pro-small-business groups that align closely with either Republicans or Democrats. “We try to take a very unvarnished look at what the real issues are," McCracken says, "and try to stay out of those issues that are based purely on politics.”
To set its lobbying agenda, the NSBA goes beyond simply surveying its members. To start, all 32 NSBA board members are small-business owners, passionately concerned about the issues that affect their organization's members. In addition, McCracken himself frequently flies across the country and holds teleconferences to meet with small-business associations to hear firsthand what issues they care about most. He also holds an annual event called the Small Business Congress, which is open to all NSBA members, to debate and vote on the organization’s top priorities for the upcoming session of Congress.
McCracken says the NSBA joins diverse groups of organizations to lobby on issues that affect broad swaths of Americans—not just small businesses—whether that's tax reform or health-care reform. But it tries to take a lead on lobbying for issues that are more specific to small businesses. Recently, for example, the NSBA pushed Congress to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank of the United States (Ex-Im Bank) before its authorization expires on September 30. The Ex-Im Bank, a federal agency, provides financing to help businesses export and sell their products in foreign markets. Last year, the agency approved more than 3,400 small-business transactions, which accounted for nearly 90 percent of its total transactions. The NSBA is also a big advocate for legislation that allows the self-employed to deduct their health insurance premiums, including legislation that was approved in 2010 (but only for one year).
One of the challenges the NSBA faces is that politicians are always putting a “small business spin” on the issues—which makes it more difficult for small businesses to get their actual viewpoints and key issues across. And setting a small-business lobbying agenda is tricky, McCracken concedes, because small businesses come in all different sizes and situations. A business owner with patents, for example, probably supports laws that strengthen those patents, while a startup entrepreneur may support loosening patent laws in order to promote innovation.
As he says, “It’s always a tricky balance for us,” though it's a challenge the organization and McCracken are always eager to take on.
Maria Contreras-Sweet, Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration
Confirmed on March 27, Maria Contreras-Sweet became the 24th administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA)—the federal agency created by the Eisenhower administration in 1953 to “aid, counsel, assist and protect, insofar as is possible, the interests of small business concerns.”
Past SBA administrators have had a wide variety of backgrounds and expertise when it comes to helping and understanding the challenges faced by small businesses. (The most recent former administrator, Karen Mills, for example, was an expert on entrepreneurial clusters and venture capital.) Contreras-Sweet has experience and expertise in the world of commercial and community banking. In 2006, she founded ProAmérica Bank, a Los Angeles community bank that provides funding to the city’s Latino entrepreneurs and businesses.
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Contreras-Sweet immigrated to Los Angeles when she was 5 years old. She started her career working in public affairs for Westinghouse’s 7-Up/RC Bottling division. She then became an equity partner in management’s leveraged buyout of the bottling company and later became California’s secretary of business, transportation and housing, a position she held from 1999 to 2003.
Many hope that her varied background working for large and small businesses, as well as government, will help Contreras-Sweet guide the SBA to better serve the many small-business owners who've struggled to find capital in recent years due to the financial crisis, including many minority-owned businesses. SBA lending surged under Karen Mills, but it remains to be seen whether the SBA's loan programs, such as the 7(a) program, will continue to flourish under Contreras-Sweet.
In her recent first meeting with reporters since her confirmation, Contreras-Sweet suggested she plans to seek ways to make the SBA more relevant in a technology-driven world, including trying out new programs that help small-business owners get loans and grow their businesses. She wants to better publicize the services the SBA can offer entrepreneurs, including minority and veteran entrepreneurs, as well as speed up SBA disaster loan processing—which has come under scrutiny due to the slow processing after Hurricane Sandy.
“My lament is that, when you come into government and you try to innovate and advance, you are critiqued if it’s not perfect in the first instance,” Contreras-Sweet says, according to The Washington Post, adding that the SBA must be “responsible with the assets we are assigned, but that needs to be tempered with this idea of advancing and innovation.”
Lloyd Chapman, President and Co-Founder of the American Small Business League
Depending on whom you ask, Lloyd Chapman is either a crusader fighting for small businesses or an outspoken and litigious leader. It's true that Chapman devotes much of his time to doing media interviews and writing columns criticizing the Obama administration and federal agencies for missing their target of awarding 23 percent of all contract dollars to small businesses. (Federal agencies have missed that goal—albeit slightly—every year since 2005, according to The Washington Post.) Moreover, Chapman’s research of federal contracting databases shows that agencies divert more than $100 billion each year in small-business contracts to Fortune 500 corporations.
Chapman is well-known for lobbing million-dollar lawsuits at the federal government and defense contractors over the matter. He’s filed dozens of lawsuits since forming his Petaluma, California-based lobbying organization, the American Small Business League (formerly called the Microcomputers Industry Suppliers Association). Chapman first began his legal battles with the government while working as a sales manager for a small computer company in northern California. According to Chapman, the Government Accountability Office started investigating the diversion of 5,300 small-business contracts to large corporations only after he provided them research in the early 2000s.
Chapman says his dogged pursuit of the small-business contracting issue is helping the many small companies that want their fair share of federal contracts but can’t get them because federal agencies and big corporations are working together. “I’ve won about 25 lawsuits over small-business contracting," Chapman says. “That’s a pro-small-business organization."
He says he’s often shunned by other groups that claim to be small-business advocates but get their funding from Fortune 500 companies. “In Washington," he says, "you can’t really make a living being a small-business advocate, but you can become a millionaire helping Fortune 500 corporations.”
Barbara Kasoff, President and Co-Founder of Women Impacting Public Policy
Women-owned businesses comprise about 29 percent of all U.S. businesses but, more bleakly, employ just 6 percent of the U.S. workforce and account for only 4 percent of business revenues, according to a 2013 study commissioned by American Express. Several organizations, including the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO), the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), advise the federal government on how to improve the climate for women-owned businesses as well as fight for key issues, such as allocating more federal contracting dollars to women-owned firms and helping women get business loans.
Barbara Kasoff is among the leaders giving a voice to women and minority-owned businesses in Washington. As founder of Women Impacting Public Policy—or WIPP—Kasoff seeks to bring together the public and private sectors to find ways to enhance the economic power of women.
Kasoff ran a voice-messaging company, VoiceTel, from 1990 to 2001 before creating WIPP. Her San Francisco-based organization now has more than 1 million members, including those in 68 affiliated advocacy groups. Among WIPP's accomplishments: lobbying for the Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program, an initiative passed by Congress in 2011 that requires the federal government to target at least 5 percent of its contracting dollars, or $5 billion overall, to women-owned businesses.
Kasoff is a believer and advocate that women business owners need to take charge of their own situation and band together. In a 2013 interview with The Associated Press, she said that WIPP will push to get more women elected in Congress, which should help women business owners get more recognition among political leaders. She also wants to see the federal contract targets for women-owned businesses raised above 5 percent, which she says is still way too low.
But she says that WIPP is also working to change the mindset of women business owners to help them see the potential to grow their businesses into large companies rather than just remaining small businesses.
“There are way too many women who are self-employed and have no employees—88 percent of women business owners,” Kasoff told AP. “We have to change that ‘psychology of small.’ If you want to grow, you have to have the realization that it can't be just you (working in your company).”
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Photos: Getty Images, Todd McCracken, Lloyd Chapman