‘Resilient Communities’ Breakfast Jumpstarts Conversation on the Modern Economy
WASHINGTON — Connie E. Evans, president and CEO of the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, smiled broadly Thursday as she surveyed the early morning crowd gathered to hear her and other speakers at Charlie Palmer Steak.
“It’s seldom, at least in my experience, that you get a chance to have this type of discussion,” she said of The Well News event, “Building Resilient Communities: Leveraging Employers to Increase Prosperity,” at which she was about to speak.
“I mean, particularly here in D.C.,” she said, nodding toward the large windows of the restaurant, through which loomed a sweeping view of the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol.
“Most of the time people gather around the city to talk about funding and policy, and naturally so,” Evans said.
“It isn’t often that you get a chance to talk to mayors and local administrations and people who are really doing the work at the grass roots [level] … fostering small business and economic development on Main Streets across America,” she added.
Moderated by The Well News’ Cori Kramer, “Building Resilient Communities” was at its heart a discussion on how government, businesses and their employees can collaborate to strengthen local economies and, with them, the nation’s economy as a whole.
Evans’ organization is the national trade association for U.S. microfinance and microbusiness.
“That means we are the voice for millions of entrepreneurs and business owners across the country with five or fewer employees,” she explained during an extended interview Friday morning.
It also means, without Evans’ saying so explicitly, that the AEO is at the forefront of an often overlooked vista in the post-pandemic future of work.
While much of the media coverage in the waning days of the coronavirus pandemic has focused on things like whether large employers will ever see their workers return to midtown office locations, the Association for Enterprise Opportunity deals with things like the impact the pandemic had on businesses that are often quite small, as well on those businesses’ wage and contract employees.
Job one then is helping the public at large — and lawmakers of every stripe — understand that that other world of problems exists.
For instance, there was Evans’ mention of “microfinance.”
When it was suggested that most people associate the phrase with disadvantaged populations in developing nations, Evans rocked back in her chair and let out a knowing laugh.
“You know, when I took the position of president and CEO of this organization in 2009 and landed in D.C., that was something I heard all the time,” she said.
“Whenever I told them what AEO was, and mentioned microfinance, they’d invariably say, ‘Oh, I thought that was only used overseas … by the poor lady with the cow,’” she remembered.
To combat that misperception, the association put out a study, “Bigger Than You Think,” that illustrated how microbusinesses comprise 92% of the businesses in the U.S. and create 41% of the jobs.
“Those microbusinesses, which might be a single entrepreneur or a business with just a handful of employees, have a nearly $5 trillion impact on the economy,” she said.
Among the successful battles the association has waged over the years was getting the Small Business Administration to increase the maximum size of loans available to these vital businesses from $35,000 to $50,000.
But there’s always more to do, she said. And that’s one reason why she’s thrilled to have the Association for Enterprise Opportunity be a member of the Modern Economy Project, a coalition of business-related groups that co-sponsored “Building Resilient Communities” with TechNet.
Other members of the Modern Economy Project include the Association of Women’s Business Centers, the Coalition for Career Development Center, Gusto, the International Franchise Association, the National Association of Workforce Boards, the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, TechNet and U.S. Black Chambers, Inc.
“We’re all in this together,” Evans said. “And so what the Modern Economy Project does is bring all of these different players together to address common concerns and really work to address the common challenges our economy, and the workers within it, are facing.
“Again, that was the beauty of the session we all just attended. Like the Modern Economy Project, it underscored that we all need to listen to what’s working in local communities and learn what various mayors and county executives are doing,” she said.
“For instance, at the event we heard from Matt Meyer, the county executive of New Castle County, Delaware, who spoke about how he implemented a local idea for getting bartenders and others who worked in local restaurants back to work,” Evans continued.
“So here we heard about an idea originating from local policymakers and then how it came to fruition by attracting funding from the federal government,” she said. “That’s a perfect example of why it is important to come together and listen to local policymakers and also to encourage Congress to act.”
Asked whether that second piece might be more challenging now that control of Congress has changed hands, Evans said she doesn’t think that will be the case.
“One of the ways that we are fortunate when it comes to our work is that the economy really is bipartisan,” she said. “The economy is not a partisan issue.
“And it’s funny, one of the meetings I attended immediately after the ‘Resilient Communities’ breakfast was one in which we discussed this very issue,” she said. “Some people at that meeting said, ‘Well, we need to incorporate more local government into the issues we care about.’
“Others said, ‘Oh no, what we need to be focusing on and talking about is gridlock on Capitol Hill.’
“And I was like, ‘I don’t know if that’s true.’ I don’t think people concerned about local issues and trying to bring good things to fruition in their communities are necessarily the same people who stay tuned in to MSNBC or CNN or one of those other channels every hour of the day,” Evans said.
“It’s the people who do that who do constantly hear about and talk about gridlock in Congress, and I don’t see how focusing on that advances what we’re trying to do,” she continued. “I mean, look how long it took for them to elect a speaker of the House? Did anything that transpired during that week or however long it took really relate to us? I don’t think so.
“And what we did during that period was say, ‘Okay, let’s focus on what’s important to us — the policy challenges faced by microbusinesses across the country. What are the changes that we need to see around modernizing existing programs to make them more beneficial to those that need them in the current economic reality?’
“‘How do we change how we strive to educate policymakers about access to workforce capital and other issues and ideas? And how do we address those things we simply haven’t had a chance to address yet?’
“So it’s not about getting swept up in the political battles that play out in the media. Regardless of who controls Congress, what we need to do is make sure we’re able to clearly and distinctly inform the current body of the needs [of our members].
“What transpired at the ‘Resilient Communities’ breakfast was a good initial conversation on these issues to jumpstart the year,” Evans said. “And the point I really wanted to make, and hopefully it came through, is that in this new economy, Congress and the administration have to focus more on the needs of independent contractors and the issues that arise for small business in an economy increasingly based on that workforce.
“At AEO, we’re launching a research project that we hope will bring a better understanding about the rise of independent contractors in our country, the 1099 form workers, and what they mean to the U.S. economy,” she said.
“Among the questions we’re going to try to answer are, ‘How many are there?’ How diverse are they? What are the needs and challenges that need to be addressed for them?’ And of those, ‘Which are the most urgent?’”
“What we’ve really been talking about this morning is communications. And we really want to make sure we are able to present strong, factual — and current — information on who these independent contracts are and who is using them, to help inform the decisions the Labor Department, Congress and others will be making going forward,” Evans said.
Dan can be reached at [email protected] and @DanMcCue
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