Entrepreneurial Optimism: Keeping on the Sunny Side of Life

I saw someone wearing a button the other the day that read, “I refuse to participate in a recession.” I also recently worked on a short issues survey conducted among members of the National Association of Women Business Owners that contained some results with much the same message – that women business owners, gloom and doom bedamned, are holding firm and planning to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and see the economic situation brightening before the end of 2009.
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Here are a few interesting facts from that recent survey (and click here to read the full study news release):

  • While most NAWBO members say that the current economic situation is the worst the country has faced in their lifetime, a 52% majority plan no changes in employment levels this year compared to 2008, and 40% plan to keep capital investment the same in 2009 as last year.
  • Fully 24% of NAWBO members are planning on adding jobs this year, compared to just 9% of small business owners recently surveyed by the National Federation of Independent Business.
  • Not surprisingly, the state of the economy is the most important issue facing NAWBO members at the present time, at about the same levels as last year – but the cost and availability of health insurance and business taxes are also key issue concerns.
  • A majority of NAWBO members feel that economic conditions in the country (54%) and in their own businesses (54%) will be better by the end of this year compared to today. Just 30% say that things in their own companies will be about the same at the end of this year, and 25% say that the country’s economic situation will be no better by the end of 2009.

So are women business owners like the members of NAWBO typifying the sunny disposish/hope springs eternal sentiment not uncommon among all entrepreneurs to the detriment of their businesses, fiddling while Rome burns? Or, are they and other small business owners everywhere the very people who can keep our country and all other countries around the world moving forward despite – and in the face of – large corporation and financial institution bail-outs and flame-outs? I certainly think the answer is obvious – and don’t you think it’s time that small- and mid-sized businesses and their stalwart owners are given the credit they deserve (financial and otherwise) for being the true backbone of our global economy?

Time to get back to basics, I say, and to add to our economic balance sheet an accounting of the largely unheralded role that small business owners play in employing people (over half of US workers, according to the SBA), creating new jobs (between 60 and 80% of the net new jobs, again according to the SBA), contributing to community (think support for symphonies, festivals, and sports teams as well as contributing to the local tax base), and bringing a well-needed triple bottom line view to business ownership. I’d say we all derive much greater value from these wealth creators than from the “smartest guys in the room” types who created the financial derivative instruments that are now being bundled together and quarantined in “toxic asset banks.”

All hail the entrepreneur, and three cheers for their “sunny side up” optimism.

“There’s a dark & a troubled side of life
There’s a bright, there’s a sunny side, too
Tho’ we meet with the darkness and strife
The sunny side we also may view

“Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,
Keep on the sunny side of life
It will help us ev’ry day,
It will brighten all the way
If we’ll keep on the sunny side of life.”

(From “Keep on the Sunny Side of Life,” lyrics by AP Carter)

Glass Half Empty … or Half Full?

glasshalffull1Today is International Women’s Day, and I’m just back from a trip to Blackpool, England to attend and speak at the 6th annual Prowess conference – a membership organization founded in 2002 to promote women’s enterprise support and share best practices among the enablers of women’s enterprise. While there, and while traveling there and back, I listened to the news, read local papers, and talked to women and men about the state of women’s enterprise and the state of the world economy. I would say that both would appear to be at a critical crossroads – and the verdict is still out as to how much fallout there will be as we move through our current challenges into the future.

We know that, despite increasing numbers of women entering into self-employment and business ownership, women-owned businesses still lag their male counterparts in terms of economic growth. And, while women-targeted business support has yielded some success, there is still a challenge with monitoring outcomes and measuring impact. And, as budgets tighten in the public, private and third sectors, womenablers everywhere are being pressed to show results, improve program performance, and do more with less.

We also all know the current economic statistics: housing values declining, joblessness rising, banks and large corporations seeking government bail-outs, and much hand-wringing all the way around. (See all of the collective gloom and doom from the recently-concluded World Economic Forum at Davos.) I’ve read that growth in Gross Domestic Product in nearly all developed nations will be at or under zero this year, meaning that – for the first time – developing nations will be powering whatever progress we make this year in the world economy. However, while these challenges are very real – and some would say are marking some fundamental restructuring – we’re also hearing talk about the power that perceptions and emotions play into our collective economic psyches. For example, about 10 days ago Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said, during Congressional testimony, that the economy could start to turn around by the end of the year, and the next day the Dow Jones Industrial Average went up over 3%. So what we say and how we say it can make a real difference.

This was driven home to me very clearly by the remarks given at the Prowess conference by the keynote speaker, noted author and feminist Germaine Greer. I was looking forward to hearing her, as she’s known for being provocative. I thought she’d give all of us some “women can pull us out of the fire” exhortations. Instead, what we got was a lot of gloom and doom, capitalism is the enemy clap-trap. A real disappointment, and a missed opportunity. But, upon some reflection, it pointed out another element – and opportunity – of our current societal circumstances: that we are seeing not only some fundamental restructuring of our economy, but of our business and political leadership, and that the voices that are putting up the most fuss and that are in many ways holding back the changes that need to be made are those who have been in power and have benefited from the old ways of doing things. In politics, in business, and in civil society changes are happening and new voices are being heard. It’s up to all of us to ensure that women’s voices are a part of this debate and discussion.

So, while I certainly acknowledge the seriousness of the economic trough we are now in (especially since I live in Michigan, the state with the highest unemployment rate in the US), I, for one, am going to be looking toward the future with optimism, buoyed by the belief that entrepreneurial spirit, innovation and persistence will push through the defensiveness, fear and retrenching that yesterday’s leaders seem to be clinging to. Let’s tip the balance away from the Chicken Little ‘sky is falling in’ discussion and start paying some more attention to what makes us all strong. On this International Women’s Day let the persistence, perseverance and power of women shine though and move us all forward. I say the glass is at least half full – so let’s all raise one and say cheers, prost, salud, santé, and sláinte on this International Women’s Day!