woman leaning against a brick wall in a white jacket
woman leaning against a brick wall in a white jacket

A note from our editor, Elizabeth MacBride:

Starting a business is somewhat out-of-style right now, as a vehicle for making the world a better place. Liberal policymakers are focused on labor. The right-wing, which used to be at least a nominal champion of small businesses, has disintegrated. Some big foundations have moved on.

In part, that’s because small business ownership – starting a business, startups – became conflated with tech entrepreneurship. The tech world is pretty tarnished these days. But should entrepreneurship more broadly be? I was out in Yosemite this past weekend, reporting on a handful of stories, including some about Evergreen Lodge. The B-corp company is built around a program that gives young people from troubled backgrounds a four-month internship including training, budgets and skydiving!, among other social activities.

I interviewed Egypt Noble, who took part in the program eight years ago, as a 25-year-old. Having kept in touch with the company for all these years, she returned as a regular employee last year when a job came up that she wanted, as a cook. Her dream is to own a restaurant. She’s working on saving $20,000 as a start. The majority of today’s entrepreneurs look like Noble. They are women and people of color, likely to be starting service businesses and food establishments. Women are by far the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs and small business owners.The fact that small business ownership is being dismissed now by elite thinkers, policymakers and by many investors fits a very old pattern: When women move into an economic sector, its importance, measured by the money flowing to it, declines. That pattern has been documented in large studies by researchers Asaf Levanon, Paula England and Paul Allison. Wages for biologists, ticket agents, designers – and any number of other professions – declined as they shifted from men to women.

I think a version of this is happening now.

Having grown up in Oakland, the daughter of a mother who used drugs, Noble emerged from the youth program at Evergreen feeling like “I could try anything and do anything.” She left a job as a cashier at Walmart, and over the next six years went on to work as a housekeeper, as a school aide and as a construction worker. Her heart kept coming back to the kitchen. “People ask me, ‘are you cooking today?’” she said. “I made some carnitas that were the bomb. I do try and make my flood flavorful and good.”

Noble hopes to save enough by next year to get off the ground in a lower-cost-of-living place. As I tried her chili (it was delicious) I thought about all the obstacles stacked against her: an unfriendly banking system; barriers to marketing thrown up by the tech platforms; onerous regulation.

Seventy years ago, a man who’d overcome Noble’s challenges, who was still dreaming her dreams, would have been seen as a potential hero. America in the mid 20th century supported millions of men like that to launch companies.
But today’s dreamers are women. And it’s way too easy to ignore women.

This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.

A business journalist for 20 years, am the founder of Times of Entrepreneurship and the co-author of The New Builders.