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What Congressmen Should Do On Recess: Visit Startups

  • and Luke Pelican
July 12, 2012 |
Members of Congress face voters suffering years of underemployment and a stagnant economy. Between sit-down fundraisers, they should visit these job seekers. But they should also visit the nation’s job creators.
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Congress leaves Washington, D.C. in August for recess. While home, members campaign, hold fundraisers, and brag to constituents about legislation they co-sponsored.
 
This August, they should also meet some new people – those creating new companies. Members of Congress face voters suffering years of underemployment and a stagnant economy. Between sit-down fundraisers, they should visit these job seekers. But they should also visit the nation’s job creators. These are not always the largest or most established local businesses. Indeed, according to research by the Kauffman Foundation, it is new companies, not established ones, that have been nearly the sole driver of net job growth in the United States for several decades.
 
To better understand such job creators, Congressmen and their staffs should visit local entrepreneurs and their startup teams. Unfortunately, many Congressmen do not even seem to realize they have startups in their own districts. Startups are not limited to the Bay Area, or New York City or Seattle. Indeed, a national nonprofit organization promoting startups, the Startup America Partnership, has regional offshoots in dozens of states led by local entrepreneurs, including in Connecticut, Kansas and Texas.
 
These networks have deep local roots and comprise startups and investors, from Nebraska’s Silicon Prairie to Boston’s Route 128. In Evanston, Illinois, the incubator Technology Innovation Center has helped launch over 300 startups, including the well-known mobile grocery business Peapod. And the New Orleans-based accelerator Launchpad Ignition hosts over 60 startup companies, providing them with co-working space, a network of mentors and opportunities to pitch their companies to investors. Countless others throughout the country help entrepreneurs launch new businesses, create jobs and develop new applications and technologies, while providing growth and stability in an increasingly dynamic economic climate.
 
There is, however, a problem with our proposal: Nobody thinks they have the time to do it. Congressmen are overscheduled with meeting yesterday’s and today’s business leaders, and spend hours a day literally dialing donors for dollars. And startups have enough on their plate without the burden of anything that looks like “politics.” It’s challenging enough for startups to follow existing laws, let alone participate in debates over new ones.
 
This reasoning has two flaws. First – as noted above – jobs. Congressmen should find time to talk to those who drive job creation, whatever else is on their plate right now. Second, recent history between startups and Congress demonstrates what happens when both sides think they don’t need to talk to the other.
 
I’m referring to when startups “fought back” against the proposed Internet copyright legislation called the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act (alongside Internet users and Internet giants). Many of the startups driving economic growth rely on connection technologies like the Internet. According to a McKinsey Group study, the Internet contributed to 21 percent of the GDP growth of developed nations over the past five years. That same research noted the United States receives 30 percent of global Internet revenues, and over 40 percent of net income. To support and surpass those figures, the United States must adopt and maintain public policy that promotes the nation’s innovative ecosystems. And entrepreneurs have every incentive to help Congress understand those ecosystems.
 
Yet Congress had introduced two copyright bills to great “bipartisan” support without consulting those in the entrepreneurial community. When tech entrepreneurs got wind of the bills, they loudly warned that the bills were written so expansively that they would not kill piracy but innovation. Venture capitalists wrote that the bills would cripple American investment in startups and essentially break the Internet’s security and open innovative architecture. Thousands of sites symbolically censored their content for a day in protest, while millions of Americans flooded congressional offices with phone calls and emails to stop the proposed laws.
 
The SOPA/PIPA fight made clear that the two groups should have been speaking to one another all along – rather than ignoring one another and then shouting to be heard or being shocked by the noise.
 
If that is not enough to convince Congressmen to get on the phone to call up their local innovators, they should know that the government officials in other countries are already beating them to the punch. Other countries want to learn from the successes of our startup ecosystems. Foreign delegations come from all over the world, including Russia, China and Bulgaria (even North Korea) to visit Silicon Valley and try to recreate its special sauce back home. They meet with companies like Google, Facebook and Apple, touring offices and chatting with employees to discover lessons they too can implement.
 
This election cycle, Americans want leaders with a plan for rejuvenating the economy and improving the job market. At least part of that plan must include technology startups and businesses born in incubators and accelerators – in almost every district and in every state in the nation.
 
The August recess affords Congressmen an opportunity to meet with the nation’s startup founders and to learn what government can do to support the growth of more businesses and more jobs. Rather than just meeting with their usual friends, they should devote one day of their recess to meeting with local startup founders aiming to create the next Google or Apple and to touring local startup incubators and accelerators to meet the men and women bringing jobs and venture capital to their states.
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