The last 12 months have made even more visible the fundamental inequities of race, gender, and geography as America confronts the dual pandemics of both COVID-19 and racial injustice.
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans vividly illustrated the extreme depths of racial injustice long present in America. The collective impact of centuries of racism toward Black Americans is measured not only in lives lost but also in unrealized personal and economic potential and advancement.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been much worse in communities of color. Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans have died at twice or more the rate of Whites. At the same time, COVID-19 has overwhelmed the already fragile health care system in rural areas. And women have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic’s economic fallout.
These dual pandemics have played out in interwoven and complex ways against the backdrop of an unequal American economy. In recent years, the American economy has been acceleratingly reshaped by trends that have consolidated wealth and limited opportunities for meaningful employment and upward mobility. Since the Great Recession, only the top 20% richest Americans gained wealth, while 80% of families fell behind.
Collectively, these symptoms of inequity are part of a broader pathology in which systemic barriers create a fundamental imbalance between those with privilege and those with uneven access to opportunities. This imbalance is pronounced for America’s entrepreneurs, who face an increasingly difficult path to turn their ideas into reality. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the rate of new entrepreneurs had essentially been flat for 20 years.
Together, these injustices keep our nation from meeting its full potential.
The new administration’s promise to “heal the nation” has never felt more urgent or needed, but it cannot be done without a deeper commitment to transforming our economy and society.
To build an economy that works for everyone and enables more entrepreneurship, policies must break down historic and systemic barriers so that all Americans, regardless of race, gender, and geography, can achieve economic stability, mobility, and prosperity.
Historic Inequities Remain
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, people of color, women, and rural Americans faced a range of barriers that impact entrepreneurship. Black households in America today have a median net worth of just $17,000 , about one-tenth that of White households. Latino households face similar wealth gaps. With less ability to take risks and less money with which to start new businesses, Black and Latino entrepreneurs remain at a disadvantage.
Inequities compound when Black entrepreneurs seek outside funding to start their businesses. Their loan requests are three times less likely to be approved than those of White entrepreneurs – a difference that persists even after accounting for credit scores and net worth.
Women, too, face inequities. Research has found that men are significantly more likely to secure funding than women when pitching the same business content. Other studies have found that investors ask women entrepreneurs about non-losses while men are asked about growth-oriented gains.
Geographic inequities also unfairly limit access to entrepreneurship. Good ideas and capable entrepreneurs live in every community, yet 79% of venture capital supports entrepreneurs in just three coastal states.
Simply put, whole groups of Americans face extra challenges in starting a business and recovering from one of the most destructive years in American history.
We have always known that access to entrepreneurship is impacted not just by immediate things like whether one has funding, but also by much bigger issues that limit opportunity and upward mobility and make it more difficult for large portions of the country to secure quality education, jobs, housing, and health care. When people are not given a quality education, it puts entrepreneurship almost out of reach. When an aspiring entrepreneur faces disparate outcomes in health or unequal access to safe and affordable transit, that too affects entrepreneurship. Unless and until we counter the structural inequities in our economy affecting people of color, women, and rural residents, America will never realize its full potential.
Taking Stock of the COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has both exposed the depth of these racial, gender, and geographic inequities and exacerbated them. Businesses owned by entrepreneurs of color were less likely to secure low-interest government loans in 2020 and more likely to shut down permanently. From February 2020 to April 2020, the number of active business owners in the United States declined 22% – the largest drop on record. Black, Latino, Asian, and female business owners were all more likely to close their doors for good. As little as 12% of Black and Latino business owners who reported applying for support through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) in the spring of 2020 received the help they requested, even as protests again moved the nation to reckon with systemic racism. An estimated 140,000 jobs overwhelmingly occupied by women disappeared just in the month of December 2020 as COVID cases hit new highs.
While the number of business applications filed in 2020 jumped 24% over 2019, many new entrepreneurs may have been spurred by limited options for economic engagement due to layoffs and COVID-19-related restrictions. Entrepreneurship research has found that business creation increases in economic recessions as some turn to entrepreneurship out of necessity. According to the Kauffman Indicators of Entrepreneurship, the percentage of new entrepreneurs who left a job or other labor market status to start a business in 2020 was 69.8% – the lowest this measure has been in 25 years, and a year-over-year decline more than twice what was seen during the Great Recession.
Our nation is at a crossroads not experienced in generations.
Will we continue to confer privilege on some while excluding many others, or will we finally dismantle systemic racism?
Will we allow barriers to sustainable growth and prosperity to endure for Americans based solely on who they are and where they live, or will we expand access in equitable ways that result in an economy that works for everyone?
Will we accept a winner-take-all economy in which the biggest businesses generate wealth for a few, or will we reorder the economy so that many independent small businesses can compete and thrive?
Will America live up to its reputation as the world’s beacon of opportunity and the best place to start a business, or will we cede our position as the world’s leading economy to competitors eager to take our place?
The choices we make in the coming months will determine which path America takes.
The Promise of Entrepreneurship
The creative and bold work of entrepreneurs shapes the future in countless ways, big and small. Entrepreneurs are innovators whose willingness to take risks yields benefits for everyone in the form of new products, services, inventions, and jobs.
Entrepreneurs are our economy’s primary job creators. New businesses started by entrepreneurs are the source of most net new jobs.
By and large, Americans intuitively grasp the importance of entrepreneurship. Nearly three out of every four voters believe it is critical or very important to the success of the economy that there are policies and programs in place to support new business owners and small businesses.
Entrepreneurs are on the front lines to rebuild our economy. Imagine what additional, new discoveries could be made, what additional and new wealth created, what revitalization could occur if access to entrepreneurship were finally equitable.
Recommitting to the Four Pillars of America’s New Business Plan
Launched in 2019, America’s New Business Plan set out to level the playing field and create equitable access to entrepreneurial opportunities for everyday Americans striving to launch new businesses.
Removing barriers that have made it harder for people of color, women, and those in rural communities to start a business requires addressing policies that directly impact new and small businesses as well as much bigger issues that limit access to entrepreneurship.
The new administration and governors around the country are pushing for additional economic relief that will create the conditions for sustained investment in historically disadvantaged communities and include an aggressive and more coordinated vaccination campaign that will allow more businesses to fully open. Members of Start Us Up, a national coalition of organizations supporting America’s New Business Plan, have identified policies that will help business owners survive now and are working with policymakers to ensure relief efforts equitably reach those most in need. This should be a priority, but action cannot end there.
Under better conditions, America can shift from emergency aid aimed at stabilizing existing businesses to a bolder strategy that transforms our flawed and unequal economy into a better, more inclusive one, centered on entrepreneurship’s power to drive growth, innovation, and job creation.
As a nation, we must support all Americans eager for a fair shot at a brighter future by leveling the playing field and expanding access to opportunity, capital, practical knowledge, and the necessary support for entrepreneurs to take risks.
Access to Opportunity: A Level Playing Field Without Red Tape
Entrepreneurship today is a path that is far more readily available to those who are White, male, and wealthy. We cannot begin to make this opportunity available to all until we address the underlying and systemic issues that make it so. Entrepreneurship can be a path that leads to sustainable growth and prosperity, but that can only be the case if we take meaningful action to address barriers to entry.
Access to Funding: The Right Kind of Capital Everywhere
Capital remains among the most impactful ways to strengthen access to entrepreneurship. Today, at least 83% of entrepreneurs do not access bank loans or venture capital when launching a business, tilting the scales in favor of the privileged who possess the wealth to create new businesses. The ongoing impact of past discriminatory policies, such as redlining, must be countered and new investments made to ensure we are supporting entrepreneurs of color as well as women and rural Americans who have less access to funding in the private market.
Access to Knowledge: The Know-How to Start a Business
All entrepreneurs start with a business idea, but they need access to networks and know-how to turn that idea into a reality. Far too many courageous entrepreneurs take the risk of starting a business without really knowing where to begin or understanding the requirements and barriers that come with opening a business. We need to strengthen entrepreneur support organizations that help entrepreneurs along the journey, connect entrepreneurs to mentors, and improve education from pre-K upward.
Access to Support: The Ability for All to Take Risks
Becoming an entrepreneur means leaving behind the stability of a traditional job and steady income – a daunting proposition for anyone, but especially for the many Americans living paycheck to paycheck or with little savings. Having access to a safety net makes risk-taking far more viable. Policymakers must act to ensure the next generation of entrepreneurs is not locked out of opportunities to improve their economic situations by helping Americans build wealth and addressing their real financial concerns that limit risk-taking.
2021: Meeting the Moment
Moments of crisis are also moments of opportunity. In 2021, America has the opportunity to transform itself by strengthening policies that address racial inequality, narrow the gap between rich and poor, and raise the economic status of historically marginalized communities. Now is the time for America to ensure that the best and boldest ideas for supporting entrepreneurship are discussed, debated, and acted on.
In doing so, we will be forced to look not just at the immediate issues related to starting a business, but also at the underlying impacts of systemic barriers that limit access and opportunity. Though difficult, this is the way to rebuild better – to create an economy that works for everyone.
More than ever, America needs entrepreneurs of every race and gender and from every region to leap into the unknown and discover new and better ways to move our country forward.