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  • Writer's pictureClair Whitmer

"Why"? How I Learned to Love This Question More Than "Why Not"?

Updated: May 13, 2021

During nearly two years in Fresno, I've moved three times, spent more than 300 hours commuting on Amtrak, mourned the passing of two co-workers -- one from COVID-19 and one, I believe, from the mental strain of COVID-19 -- and, in my free time, launched a small business in partnership with my husband, a small business that in our first year provided jobs with PTO and health benefits to more than 100 essential workers.

During my time in Fresno, the city elected a new Mayor, a man named George Floyd was murdered by a policeman in front of the whole world and his murderer subsequently convicted, COVID-19 shut down the planet, and a President lost an election and his mind and incited his supporters to attack the Capital and threaten to hang the Vice President. Federal money started flowing in theretofore unimaginable volume to communities across the country like Fresno challenging us all to provide actual answers to the previously rhetorical question: "what would we do if we had the money?" At some point in there, it stopped feeling weird that everyone says "I appreciate you" all the time.

Despite, or maybe because of, the chaos and disruption of the past two years one principle, one idea, has taken the pathfinding role in the intellectual exploration of nearly every topic and every profession across the country: the principle of widening the frame. Equity and Inclusion are now the terms underpinning every discussion, at FUSE Corps, in Fresno and across the nation.

And -- just as I'd hoped for on arrival in Fresno -- this principle has helped me answer a question that I couldn't answer when I first applied for my Fellowship: Why.

My answer at the time I came to Fresno was more tied to the question "Why Not".

I came to Fresno because I'd lost a job I loved and that provided a good salary and a mission and I needed to replace both. The project available in Fresno was about mobilizing capital in Opportunity Zones had elements that were familiar to me from my previous experience in corporate management -- investment, private equity, Opportunity Zones. I thought I knew enough relevant stuff to make a contribution and I'd studied political science in college and I'd always thought maybe I'd give government a go, so...Why Not?

It turns out that I've done a lot of things in life because of Why Not. And I don't regret that...I've learned many interesting things and honed many useful skills because of Why Not. Why not move to France to study? Why not take a job at CNET doing this thing they're calling online journalism? Why not make more money doing product management if they're willing to pay me to learn as I go? Why not take my kids to this thing called Maker Faire 'cause that sounds fun? My answers to all those Why Not questions shaped the course of my life.

But I believe I've, finally, outgrown Why Not while in Fresno. I think I have stumbled on my Why in the onfolding national discusssion of Inclusive Economic Development, the imagining of an economy that works for everybody.

My initial project was about matchmaking between people with capital gains with property owners in poor areas in projects that can claim to produce a social benefit. The term used to describe this role is "deal jockey".

It turns out I didn't make a very good deal jockey. That activity requires a much deeper knowledge of real estate and financing than I possessed then and even now, despite all I've learned in the interim.

And two years of studying case studies has convinced me that the "opportunity" in Opportunity Zone is more for the investor than for the people living in the Zone. It's not because the concept is corrupt in some way, but because investing is always about making money for the investor. That's the point of investing. Opportunity Zones are simply a way for local governments who are paying close attention to nudge investors in the right direction.

At any rate, it didn't give me my Why.

I found my Why when COVID-19 struck and I was forced by circumstance to turn my energy and my skills to helping the City of Fresno deploy $4.75M in CARES Act money to small business owners. A year spent thinking about small business people and their challenges and trying to figure out how to talk to them and keep their businesses literally alive is what has consistently inspired me.

My mission is now to help cities develop entrepreneurial ecosystems.
Further, I really want to show that the word "entrepreneur" does not equal "white guy who talks about tech disrupting everything" even though this demonstration really shouldn't be necessary.

If asked to come up with a recipe for inclusive economic development, I'd say home + business-ownership are the two primary ingredients. Not a new idea...that's the American Dream combo after all. It's just that the unexpected circumstances of my fellowship forced me to think about it more closely along with the rest of the intelligentsia.

There are good reasons why everyone loves Main Street. Small businesses provide most of the new jobs in any city and determine the character of the neighborhoods where they operate. Running a small business doesn't require a college degree that most working people can't afford. Small business owners serve as role models in their communities and they build assets to pass onto their children.

But that's not really why it's the secret to inclusion.

Becoming your own boss is the number one reason cited for starting a small business: 55% of small business owners say that's why they did it. Small business owners face many barriers of structural racism and misogyny and they know the odds against long-term success...but they don't have to worry about the boss not liking their hair or their name or their accent and they don't have to wait for anyone to tell them they deserve an opportunity.

These are among the ideas explored in a new book by venture capitalist Seth Levine (and ghost-writer Elizabeth Macbride) called The New Builders: Face to Face with the TRUE Future of Business.

The authors' definition of entrepreneur is both deeper -- every size of business -- and wider -- every single person willing to risk their own resources for a business idea -- then the cliche image normally associated with the word. They calculate that the collective economic contribution of brown, black and female business-owners outstrips that of the mostly white, mostly male tech nerd that we think owns the word. The book tells stories about individual entrepreneurs that illustrate this reality.

I like the book and the stories. They are inspiring.

But I'm struck by the fact that Seth thinks that these are "new builders" when the government already had all the math on this.

The technology industry accounted for $1.9 trillion in 2019, about 10% of the total U.S. economy. Small businesses collectively accounted for $5.9 trillion or 44% of GDP in 2014 (the most recent year available). Businesses with fewer than 20 employees make up 89% of all U.S. businesses. About 20% of all businesses are minority-owned.

These companies clearly don't generate revenue dollars in the same way that the tech industry does e.g. barbershop vs. Amazon. But the sheer scale of the small business landscape means they do collectively make an contribution to national GDP and they for sure generate jobs: 47.3% of the private workforce. There is no quantification for the self-respect fostered by being your own boss. None of this is "new".

I would suggest that maybe what Seth means by the title is really that he just figured it out, he being exactly the kind of guy that the entrepreneurship narratives aggrandize and whose faces turn up if you Google "famous entrepreneur", meaning, in American English, "entrepreneur who got rich" (e.g. Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Marc Andreessen, Jeff Bezos, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, plus Oprah).

Apparently Seth noticed it right around the time that the government closed down all those businesses in favor of Amazon and Home Depot and Target. In other words, right about the time he wished they would come back.

I don't want to be too hard on Seth. The same irony could be observed of me and my newfound mission. In fact, in a post-COVID world, there are a lot of privileged white-collar professionals just like me (only mostly still men) who just woke up to the importance of something that they had literally been looking at, driving by, and shopping in -- if not necessarily investing in -- their entire lives.

That doesn't mean that Seth and I are insincere. And I certainly hope it doesn't mean that figuring out how to invest in these businesses and getting others to do the same isn't important work.

This is what I wrote on arrival in Fresno in my post Chasing Opportunity:

What’s compelling to me about this topic at this time is that the still coalescing OZ community is characterized by the kind of optimism and big ideas you would hope for when launching a nationwide anti-poverty experiment. And nobody knows exactly what it all means yet so there is room for newcomers like me.

A whole lot has changed since then... but one thing has remained constant: Nobody knows exactly what it all means yet.

Selfishly, I'm encouraged by the persistent lack of complete answers by people smarter than me. And I hope that having spent 20 years spent watching "serial entrepreneurs" do their thing in Silicon Valley taught me something, even though not one of them demonstrated the courage of the taco truck owners and hairdressers I observed up close this last year in Fresno.

I will say that this past year of disruption of has persuaded me of one argument that Seth is making and that neither of us learned in Silicon Valley: "disruption" is the last thing that motivates a real entrepreneur. A real entrepreneur wants to build something...and they're willing to risk something else to do it. Small entrepreneurs usually have no choice but to risk everything.

That kind of risk is never motivated by a casual "Why Not"; it requires a Why.

This is a simple observation. But it served as a forcing function to ask myself the same question: Why. I like the answer my Fellowship gave me. So, next up, I'll really need to start focusing on "How".

But first give me a minute to relish my Why, okay? It took me at least two careers just to get this far.

"New Builder" Resources

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Apr 26, 2021

Clair, I love the way you think and I believe you are uniquely suited to bring about social change for a more inclusive world! You go girl!! xoxo

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