Let's Get Political

Is Anybody Out There?

No question, young entrepreneurs have issues. But is anyone out there representing them?

The biggest and loudest lobbying group for small businesses, with a membership of 600,000, is the NFIB. The NFIB calls itself a "melting pot of commercial enterprise, high-tech manufacturers and family farmers, neighborhood retailers and service companies." Collectively, the group's members employ more than 7 million people and report annual gross sales of approximately $747 billion.

The problem with the NFIB is that it represents mostly people over age 35, with 10 years or more of business experience. The NFIB doesn't actively recruit young folks, and younger entrepreneurs know little about the NFIB. "Never heard of them," says Wertheim-Zohar. "And I don't know if my issues are their issues."

For some entrepreneurs, the problem with the NFIB is precisely that--the group's issues may not be in tune with this new breed of entrepreneurs. "Sure, I don't want to pay high taxes," says Schwarzwalder, "but I also care about other issues, like poverty and health care for the poor, and the NFIB's traditionally conservative stance turns me off."

So what's the alternative? Doug Mellinger, chair of the newly formed National Commission on Entrepreneurship in Washington, DC, has some answers. After 10 years as a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist, Mellinger was contacted by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to study how government can help entrepreneurs grow their businesses faster and more effectively. "Despite the flourishing of new business, entrepreneurs remain the least represented [special interest group] in Washington," Mellinger says. "Our commission hopes to educate policy-makers on how to create the infrastructure necessary for entrepreneurship."

For those looking for a membership organization (which Mellinger's Commission is not), there are groups like the Young Entrepreneurs' Organization (YEO) in Alexandria, Virginia, or The Young Entrepreneurs Network Inc. (YEN) in Los Angeles. But these groups focus on networking and education--not politics. "Washington is not our concern," says Karen Seidman, director of communications and marketing for the YEO. "We exist as a forum for young entrepreneurs to meet and talk confidentially about their business problems. We don't give advice on politics."

Perhaps the best alternative for young entrepreneurs seeking to make their voices heard is in the high-tech industry, where organizations like Technet, Open Net and, most recently, NetCoalition.com are forging the way. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, DC, telecommunications and tech companies spent about $186 million on lobbying last year. The lobbying effort comes at the same time as candidates are gearing up for the 2000 election.

Unfortunately, these high-tech lobbying groups are largely controlled and founded by the big guys. NetCoalition.com, for instance, which launched on Capitol Hill in July 1999, is made up of some of the largest Internet businesses around, including Amazon.com, America Online, DoubleClick, eBay and Yahoo! The same is true of Technet and Open Net. Not exactly a place for a start-up.

Still, some of the issues these organizations are fighting for would benefit smaller tech start-ups, too. Among the groups' goals: protecting accounting rules that make financing easier, creating more visas for high-tech workers, blocking new taxes and regulations on the Internet, and renewing the tax credit for research and development.

What's more, the tech lobbies don't have the "conservative stigma" of the NFIB. They aren't aligned with the Republicans or Democrats--at least, not yet--which may make some young entrepreneurs less skittish about getting involved.

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This article was originally published in the January 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Let's Get Political.

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