The Rise Of Entrepreneurial Communities

This summer, as Chairman of the House Small Business Committee, I had the opportunity to honor an innovative business accelerator called First Batch. This isn’t your typical business accelerator. First Batch is a product accelerator in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, that focuses on helping entrepreneurs and makers bring physical products to market. It’s a great resource supporting the intersection of technology and manufacturing, and it’s another example of the resources communities are using to build entrepreneurial ecosystems.

When you think about the entrepreneurial community, you probably picture Silicon Valley. In reality, entrepreneurship is thriving in communities between the coasts. Colorado, Utah, Texas, Kansas, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio are just a few of the states making a real effort to build systems that support new firm formation.

Efforts to organize business accelerators, make seed funding more available, reduce licensing hurdles that come with starting a new business, provide access to networks of experienced mentors and forge partnerships with local universities are making real headway in fostering communities that welcome disruptive innovation.

And all of this couldn’t come soon enough.

From my post at the House Small Business Committee, I’ve witnessed the disturbing trend of business deaths exceeding the number of business births. To put it simply, more businesses are closing their doors than opening them. It started after the economic downturn in 2008 and has yet to reverse itself. This is a real problem for a number of reasons.

A new hair salon may employ a dozen people, but a new technology may create an entirely new industry.

First and foremost is job creation. Based on the data available, we know that small businesses create the majority of new jobs. If we peel back one more layer though, we find that young firms, those less than five years old, are responsible for the vast majority of net new jobs. A new hair salon may employ a dozen people, but a new technology may create an entirely new industry. And it’s that dramatic economic impact that we risk losing when entrepreneurship declines in America.

The good news is that leaders in business and government recognize that their communities are stronger with more entrepreneurship, and they are doing more to support it. Cincinnati is a case study in these efforts and the transformational power of entrepreneurship.

Besides First Batch, regional leaders have worked to increase the resources available to startups. These include organizations like the Brandery, one of the nation’s top 10 accelerators; HCDC, the top incubator in the state of Ohio; Cintrifuse, the first regional fund-of-funds in the country; CincyTech, the leading seed-stage investment firm in the Midwest; and the Queen City Angels, a local investing group of experienced business leaders.

In addition, there are four regional universities committed to expanding the area’s entrepreneurship by providing unique programming that is driving collaborative relationships and new business development. Moreover, the state of Ohio has furthered these efforts with groundbreaking public policies that put experienced entrepreneurs on the front lines of state development. All of these resources collectively are designed to attract venture capital to the region, increase deal flow and encourage new business formation. And it’s working.

These entities have breathed life into historic Cincinnati communities like Over-The-Rhine (OTR), which was once infamous as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America. Today, it is a thriving urban hub experiencing a renaissance. If it wasn’t for a thoughtful regional strategy that understood the value of entrepreneurship, none of it would be possible.  

These results should motivate every elected official in every part of the country to embrace policies that provide a good starting point for entrepreneurs, and it should motivate entrepreneurs to start these conversations — now.

This includes removing barriers to capital and supporting new innovative models of funding, such as peer-to-peer lending and equity-based crowdfunding. It also requires a flexible, light-touch regulatory environment that embraces disruptive technologies. Finally, we must rethink how we utilize public resources. More emphasis should be placed on helping the underserved learn entrepreneurial skills, because these are the building blocks that will create more opportunities.

At the federal level, some positive actions have already been taken. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced the Startup Act. I am an original cosponsor of this bill, which would create an entrepreneur visa program for immigrants looking to start a business in the United States, and a STEM degree visa program, so that high-skilled graduates from American institutions can stay and create jobs in America.

The bill would also make permanent the 100 percent exemption on capital gains for investments in small businesses and create a targeted R&D tax credit for startups. While many of the policies that build successful ecosystems for entrepreneurship will rely on local decisions made by local officials, these are certainly a handful of national policies that would give communities a leg up.

Entrepreneurship is thriving in communities between the coasts.

We must also look for ways to support STEM education, as it is critical to communities setting out to build modern economies. It probably comes as no surprise that a significant portion of San Francisco’s workforce is employed in STEM-related jobs. But it may surprise some to learn that places like Boise, Albuquerque and Kansas City are not far behind — and some towns, such as Huntsville, Alabama, already boast a greater percentage of its workforce in STEM fields.

In many of these communities, the introduction to STEM doesn’t start when a student is deciding what to major in at college; it starts in elementary schools, where teachers integrate STEM into every aspect of their curriculum. It’s used to break down educational silos and start teaching students how to think holistically.

For example, one Michigan teacher explains that instead of just teaching math and then history, her students create pie charts to illustrate the percentage of patriots and loyalists at the start of the revolutionary war. This is the kind of teaching that builds connective tissue between concepts and ideas. And it is exactly what will prepare a new generation of innovators to continue pushing our economy forward.   

So as communities between the coasts take action to support entrepreneurship, it is critical that national leaders take note. The more we strive to empower individuals with entrepreneurial-minded policies, the sooner we can begin to view our national issues as opportunities waiting to be met, and challenges as bumps in the road to creating a successful and valuable company.