(Photo by Zephan Moses Blaxberg)
It was 2000, and the dot-com bubble had just burst.
I was 28-years-old and decided to cofound a nonprofit to help underserved areas gain access to the internet and technology skills. We bet that not only would the internet industry bounce back, but that it would grow in ways we couldn’t even imagine yet. Our first office was in a basement rented to us by a friend. We were all first-time entrepreneurs that really had no idea what we were doing. But we knew that if the internet did end up transforming the world in the way we thought it could, internet access would become a major marker of social equity.
We grew our nonprofit, One Economy, into a worldwide organization working to bridge the digital divide. We experienced first-hand the challenges of starting and growing an organization, but also saw the outsized positive impact it could have on local communities. Through persistence, we found great supporters, but we never got much help from state and local government. Following that experience, I became obsessed with how government could do more to empower and support entrepreneurs and small business owners.
The recent bidding war for the new Amazon HQ2 revealed a sharp contrast to me. Amazon received 238 bids for the second headquarters from 54 North American states, provinces, districts, or territories. In Maryland, we had two bids in Baltimore city, and one each from Charles, Howard, Montgomery, and Prince George’s counties. With 50,000 jobs promised and billions in economic impact anticipated, the billions in incentives from the state came as no surprise. We must do all that we can to make Maryland the premier destination for the world’s most innovative businesses. But watching this process also left me wondering: why aren’t we putting the same effort and incentives into supporting and growing local startups and small businesses?
The Amazon bidding process showed us what we can accomplish when state and local governments work together to come up with a creative plan that works for all. We should be putting similar energy and effort into supporting hard-working entrepreneurs and small business owners in Maryland. We should be creating an economy that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship because it is the right thing to do for the state, not only because we are trying to lure a new business. And if Amazon doesn’t choose Maryland for HQ2, we shouldn’t just throw away the hours of work by our state and local governments. Instead, let’s look at the incentives we proposed to Amazon and use those resources to support the entrepreneurs and businesses that are already here. Given the right support, the next Amazon could already be in our backyard.
We are a state with top-tier institutions that produce a highly educated workforce and research that can be tapped for entrepreneurship. We have the National Security Agency and its skilled cybersecurity researchers and engineers, Johns Hopkins University and the National Institutes of Health leading the way in medical and scientific research and the University of Maryland making massive investments in virtual reality and other cutting edge fields. These knowledge workers should be key players in our startup economy, either as founders or funders. And for the companies born out of research or incubation at one of our institutions, we need to keep them in the state as they grow.
We need government that is focused on what business can do, rather than what it can’t. Need a new factory that can handle advanced manufacturing? We should help you move into an unused factory in eastern Baltimore County and provide tax credits if you hire local workers. Looking for employees with backgrounds in the skilled trades? Good, because under my plan we will be funding apprenticeship programs for both non-college goers and those doing job re-training mid-career. Have a startup in a period of intense growth and scaling up? We can and should offer payroll tax reductions for new employees so you can grow your workforce and move capital where it’s needed.
When we think about growth and investment, it’s important that we create an environment that is inclusive to traditionally underserved communities, including women, immigrants and people of color. In rural areas, having the ability to start a small business can make all the difference in economic status, but we are seeing it dwindle more than ever before. Good, inclusive policy that supports small businesses is born out of understanding how starting a business works, or talking to the people who are doing it. And when we create a business ecosystem that is inclusive of all people and ideas, we encourage growth in all parts of our society.
Yes, attracting the company that brings in 50,000 jobs is a priority, but what about supporting the company with five employees so they can grow to 50? Or making it easier for the proven entrepreneur to take a risk on a new idea? Success for our state’s big thinkers and risk-takers is success for us all. If we build an economy that better supports our entrepreneurs and businesses now, our state will be an even more attractive location when the next opportunity like HQ2 comes along.-30-
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