Victor Hwang, a former vice president at the Kauffman Foundation, launched the nonprofit Right to Start in January 2020 to achieve a lofty mission: He wants to make the freedom and ability to pursue one’s entrepreneurial dreams a basic human right, up alongside the rights to speak and worship freely.
Since 2021, the group’s support, advice and feedback has contributed to 14 state legislatures’ introduction of more than 30 Right to Start Acts and other bills, according to Hwang. Its policy recommendations include establishing an office of entrepreneurship in every state, opening up government contracts to companies that are five years old or less, and waiving first-year business registration fees for new companies.
In its first year, the organization reported gross receipts of $1.39 million and assets of $1.45 million, with $64,492 in expenses for its programs to mobilize citizens, $59,694 for its communications efforts, and $47,046 for its advocacy to change policies, according to the Guidestar database. Supporters of the virtual organization include the Anchor Point Foundation, the Schulz Family Foundation, the Skoll Foundation, the Upmobility Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, according to Right to Start’s website. About 60 foundations support entrepreneurship, and a number are members of the Entrepreneurship Funders Network, according to Hwang.
Raising Awareness is Harder than it Seems
How Right to Start’s vision is ultimately executed—and how it collaborates with other like-minded groups—will determine how much impact it has, according to attorney Andrew Sherman, a partner at Brown Rudnick in Washington, D.C. who teaches entrepreneurship at both Georgetown University Law Center and the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
“We have one of the best entrepreneurship ecosystems in the world,” says Sherman. “The resources available entrepreneurs in the U.S. are stronger than any place on the planet. Where does Right to Start’s strategy fit with some of the more longstanding, existing organizations?”
What Defines A Right?
“It sounds very good but how does it actually play out?” he asks. “Is it going to be backed up by law? The right to have people not shove me on the subway is a basic human right. If you shove me on the subway, it’s called battery. Do we mean it’s a fundamental human right? Do we mean the law needs to change at the local level? Are we proposing an amendment to the constitution or using big bold words to support stronger entrepreneurship ecosystems (which I fully support, by the way)?”
Hwang has embraced a three-part strategy based on changing minds, policies and communities to ensure that everyone has equal access to starting and pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams. He spreads the word through both advocacy and social media, running the “Start Show” on YouTube to explore entrepreneurship as a community priority.
“We have to change the stories and the minds of people who think about this,” he says. “The way we talk about entrepreneurship has to fundamentally shift. And communities have to change. You have to get citizens activated and people involved.”
Ultimately, Right to Start aims to ensure wider access to entrepreneurship, according to Hwang.
“I’ve been in people’s startup garages and they’re living rooms as they’re trying desperately to get a company to company off the ground — and I’ve seen the heartache and the tears that can cause,” says Hwang. “Entrepreneurship today is typically viewed as an interesting topical issue or a special interest group to which we can give some subsidy or support mechanism, but if you look at entrepreneurship as a whole, there’s a gap in society where there should be hope.”
Hwang, who went to law school at the University of Chicago, has experienced entrepreneurship from the front lines. His parents supported the family by running their own IT consulting business. “I saw how hard it was on them—it’s very, very difficult to start a business—and I realized there were all these barriers getting placed in their way—from regulatory barriers to lack of information to access to capital,” he says.
He also knows his way around Washington, D.C., and entrepreneurial circles. He was most recently a senior advisor at the Office of the U.S. Commerce Secretary and, before that, held his role at the Kauffman Foundation, a philanthropy that supports entrepreneurs. He also runs an economic growth consultancy called Victor & Co., is an investor and was a past board member of Silicon Valley Forum, an organization fostering innovation.
Small Business Needs a Voice
Small businesses account for two of every three new jobs added to the economy, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy. However, policymakers and thinkers seldom discuss it in civic life and public debate, according to Hwang.
“It’s because the entrepreneurs are too busy to have a voice for themselves, so they’re hustling, building businesses,” he says. “We need some way to lift those voices up, from the very grassroots up to the grass tops, so that our leaders can hear them. That’s what we have to do—we have to get that voice heard. We have to get it into American public life and change the way the system operates.”
To that end, Right to Start has published Field Guides tailored to local, state and federal policymakers. These detail its legislative agenda, which includes lowering the tax burden on small businesses, the creation of “Entrepreneurial Capital Catalyst Grants” to invest in starting and re-launching businesses that lack access to capital, and strengthening local libraries as hubs of knowledge and digital tools for entrepreneurs. The group is working on getting 10,000 signers to a “Statement of Principles” that it plans to present to the U.S. President, the leading presidential candidates, Congressional leaders, all state governors and other elected officials.
Hwang has built a footprint in 21 states, with a team of six full-time employees and about 16 grassroots organizers. It also has built a network of “ambassadors,” – civic leaders and thought leaders it considers allies.
New Education Paradigm Required
Many young people may not realize how important the ability to run a business may be in the future. There are about 60 million people in the gig economy, according to Statista. Business formations are also up since the pandemic, as people seek a way out of unsatisfying (and low-paying) company jobs. But the lack of education about how to succeed as an entrepreneur is an obstacle.
Romina DeNicola, who teaches entrepreneurship as an adjunct lecturer at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) in New York City, sees community colleges as an important piece of the puzzle. She has been advocating for basic entrepreneurship becoming a mandatory course.
She believes the key to fostering entrepreneurship lies in combining education with practical exposure. “This involves providing students access to mentors, creating simulation experiences, and offering internships and fellowships for real-world experience,” she says. “Programs like the Citizen’s Explorer Entrepreneurship Program, which promotes entrepreneurial thinking within local neighborhoods, can be instrumental.”
She identified some elements that can help propel interest among young people.
• Inviting entrepreneurs for Q&A sessions offers students direct insights into the challenges and triumphs of launching a business.
• Adding public speaking components can boost their confidence, especially when pitching for funding.
• Increasing the availability of grants for pre-seed/product market fit exploration can also catalyze the entrepreneurial journey for many students.”
Ultimately, it’s likely to take many players rowing in the same direction to make entrepreneurship available to all. Hwang, for his part, is all for having boots on the ground in many places. “It’s such a polarizing time, and everyone doesn’t think you can work together on stuff,” he says. “We found that if you come up with the right ideas and talk about them in the right way, and give the right data, there are policymakers that really want to make a difference–and we’re finding them.”
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.