While debates rage on about the current condition of the American Dream—whether it’s living, on life support or on the way out—one thing is clear: One of the most vibrant expressions of the American Dream is starting and/or owning a business. In fact, small businesses may be what’s keeping the American Dream alive and well.
In the U.S., we love small business perhaps more than anyone else in the world. Citing a poll for the Public Affairs Council that found that a whopping 88 percent of Americans view small business favorably, an article in entrepreneur.com says that small business may be the most popular institution in America. Sixty-eight percent of respondents even said they’d rather pay more to do business with a small business than a big one.
Case Western professor of entrepreneurial studies and contributor Scott Shane writes that additional studies, including some by the Pew Foundation and the Gallup Organization, have found that our collective regard for small business in not only high (more positive than for churches and universities) but also stays relatively stable over time. But the really interesting question is why we keep small business owners on a pedestal, given that sooner or later, we seem to grow skeptical and cynical about other institutions.
The #1 reason we love small business so much: Small business owners embody the American Dream. No surprise here. The notion of an American Dream goes way back; small business owners are keeping that flame alive for us all.
Other reasons we love small business include:
- We like the idea that big companies come from tiny ones.
- We see small business as the underdog, and we love rooting for the underdog.
- We believe small business owners are honest and ethical.
- We see small business as the backbone of the middle class.
But it’s the intricately woven tapestry of history, myth, fact and aspiration that makes small businesses the perfect, and even timeless, example of the American Dream. The research points to the fact that we like the gumption it takes to invest one’s life savings to follow the dream of starting a business. And this ties directly into the narrative about our national DNA that says we’re a nation of go-getters and risk-takers, living in the land of opportunity that’s ripe for the taking.
Heck, even politicians seem to agree that small businesses and their owners represent the best of who we are and who we can be. Studies show 90-plus percent of both Republicans and Democrats hold small business in high esteem. And remember President Obama’s comments in 2010 when he signed the Small Business Jobs Act?
Small businesses produce most of the new jobs in this country. They are the anchors of our Main Streets. They are part of the promise of America—the idea that if you’ve got a dream and you’re willing to work hard, you can succeed. That’s what leads a worker to leave a job to become her own boss. That’s what propels a basement inventor to sell a new product or an amateur chef to open a restaurant. It’s this promise that has drawn millions to our shores and made our economy the envy of the world.
Writing on thedailyrecord.com, contributor Mary Ann Henker further ties small business and the American Dream together, Henker says industrialists like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and Carnegie created the definition of the American Dream as they were building their industries and literally transforming the country with railroads, oil and steel. Many of the characteristics they shared are also those we link to achieving the American Dream today:
- A willingness to push through fear and embrace failure
- An appetite for taking risks—in exchange for potential returns
- A fierce competitiveness—a drive to be the best and conquer the competition
- Overcoming obstacles and persevering, no matter what
- Not being willing for anything less than success
The particulars of what the American Dream actually looks like may have changed from the Industrial Age to the Information Age we’re in now. But, the underpinnings of it have not. And that constancy is what keeps small businesses—and most of all, founders and owners—at the heart of the American Dream itself.
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