By John Celock
Washington – The last two days I had the chance to attend the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s annual America’s Small Business Summit, a gathering of small business leaders from around the country.
During these two days I had a chance to talk with a variety of small business leaders and see the issues facing small business across the country. In addition I had the chance to see some of the innovation occurring first hand nationwide, including from entrepreneurs in middle and high school.
Among the takeaways from the conference is a sense of uncertainty in the American economy which could impact small business development, along with a sense of optimism amongst small business owners for their business and their community. The spirit of the event was very focused not only on small business growth but on community development. With leaders of locals chambers of commerce attending, the ways for small businesses to impact and grow their communities played a role in many of the conversations occurring.
Tony Singh, the CEO of Zappos, spoke not only about e-commerce or apparel but on how a company can benefit its immediate community. Singh talked about how Zappos – looking for a new headquarters to house all of its employees – chose not a large campus but the former Las Vegas City Hall in the city’s downtown. Taking over the space, Singh discussed how he and other employees started looking at the downtown area in Vegas and the existing stores and restaurants. Looking to build up the local area and create a walkable downtown in one of the more unwalkable cities, Zappos has become a leader. Zappos gives out grants to help develop small business and encourages employees to spend time downtown and live in the neighborhood if possible.
Singh’s comments show a key commitment of corporate social responsibility, being able to help grow and develop your communities. While it is important to start developing new regions and CSR should include environmental commitments, the community the business is in should be a key part of any company’s mission.
Zappos broke with the mold of many companies that have sought large campuses with spread out buildings and lush gardens for a downtown landscape close to cafes and stores. The commitment of the company to get employees out in to the community to eat lunch or shop, builds up the small businesses that grow these communities and make them vibrant. This population, which can exist into the evening, provides a vibrant community that makes more people want to come downtown in the evening or to live. Instead of a downtown region that closes up, a commitment to providing for these regions allows for a vibrancy that grows the regional economy and sustains small business.
Community involvement is a key factor for any business. The local community can be an area of much economic growth and businesses need to invest in it and also work together to invest in it. Community growth and involvement does not happen alone, but is an area where all companies can pitch in and the growth will help them grow and prosper.
In addition to Singh’s presentation and other presentations on issues such as international trade, small business lending, the national economic outlook, regulatory practices and cyber security, the presentations of various small business awards provided a chance to see many of the growing businesses and best practices in action. The awards went to a variety of companies from an ice cream parlor in Chicago to an indoor rock climbing company in North Carolina.
But one of the highlights of the conference was the Young Entrepreneurs Academy Saunders Scholars. The six finalists from this program are incredibly talented middle and high school students who have developed businesses and will have an impact. The top prize went to Kayla Abramowitz from Palm Beach County, Florida, who founded Kayla Cares 4 Kids. Kayla Cares for Kids is a non-profit that “collects and donates entertainment and educational items to children’s hospitals and Ronald McDonald Houses nationwide.” During her presentation, Abramowitz talked about founding the organization after her and her brother were in and out of children’s hospitals due to long term illnesses. A real inspirational story.
The other Saunders finalists were:
Lane Kartiz – Study Senses
Hope Kessler – Quickly Covered
Vikash Mody – HireHigh
Shreyas Parab – NovelTie
Jordan Zietz – GameReef
This conference provided much in the way of inspiration of the spirit of entrepreneurship in this country. While there continues to be uncertainty that impacts small business development and growth, at the same time the optimism provided by that spirit of entrepreneurship is positive and provides a great framework to look forward and see that people are looking for economic growth.