A record number of people quit their jobs in May, 3.6 million, following the 4 million who walked out in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many are launching businesses, or considering it.
Who are these New Builders and what motivates them, in this mid-pandemic era? On a recent visit to Kansas City to speak at the Chamber of Commerce, I met three who look far different than the billionaire amateur astronauts dominating the headlines lately.
Two of the business owners I met launched in the past year, and the other in the last recession. Recessions often give people the unexpected energy to launch: If life is topsy-turvy, why not ride some of those waves to your next phase?
On a walk around the city, I also saw evidence of the economic energy of 100 years go, which bears some similarity to our own time (and it’s not just that this summer’s hedonism invites comparisons to the Roaring Twenties).
Entrepreneurs across America look a lot more like Godfrey Riddle, Jennifer Hart and Elaina Paige than Jeff Bezos, or even the rising generation of SPAC millionaires. (I’m deliberately retaking the word entrepreneur to include small businesses, in part because reserving the word entrepreneur for white men at the head of tech companies has been one more tool for keeping women and people of color out of the circles of power.)
Riddle, a black man, is typical of the rising generation of Millennial entrepreneurs, who are motivated by the idea of making an impact in the world. Affluent Millennials have already changed the investment market by putting money into what are called ESG investments, which seek a double bottom-line return, profit and impact. In fact, 87% of Millennials believe that “the success of business should be measured in terms of more than just its financial performance,” according to a 2019 survey by Fidelity Charitable.
Riddle launched Civic Saint, a fledgling fashion brand, in October 2020. When he was a kid, his family lost a house to foreclosure.
“I didn’t understand it,” he said. “Why would a business be taking something away from a kid who needed it, meaning a house?”
He remembered the sense of confusion over the years, and wondered about how businesses could be structured so that they helped build communities, not structured so they disenfranchised people.
Riddle went on to a career as a fundraiser for nonprofits. But then a few things happened that told him to quit waiting. He was diagnosed with cancer, and he lost both his mom and dad. Then George Floyd’s murder happened. He took all that grief and energy and launched Civic Saint, whose messages of solidarity resonate in a city where gun violence is surging. Some of his T shirts read: “#BLM,” “human,” and “persist.”
On my walk around Kansas City, I passed a storefront called Do Good Co., which sells some of Civic Saint’s wares. Riddle is not the only entrepreneur thinking about how to combine a sustainable business with a thoughtful impact – and, like entrepreneurs of generations ago, he kept his day job while he launched his company. His business is already breaking even.
I arrived in Kansas City, of course, via the airport, the center of a planned construction project which seemed to be a sore point for pretty much every Kansas Citian I met. The tiny international airport is easy to navigate now, but Kansas City has been growing in stature – it’s giving St. Louis a run for its money as the capital of the Southern Midwest. That means an expansion is in the works that will consume the easy parking.
Meanwhile, the company that won a bid for some of the work is a female led construction firm, Hartline Construction, which was founded during the last recession.
Jennifer Hart lost her job as an architect, and in a process familiar to many women, had to reinvent herself, quickly. Construction companies were still working: there was her answer.
Today, she is driven in part by the idea that she has built a company that employs people with good, stable jobs. Talking to her reminded me of speaking with Meribeth Franklin: During the pandemic, women business owners I spoke to were motivated to keep their companies going to care for their employees.
“Do your research and educate yourself, and move forward,” she advised people starting businesses now. “Keep on Keeping On. Know you and know you can do it. Females and minorities have a few more hurdles, but we can jump those hurdles.”
Next Paige Agency
Elaina Paige, also launched this year, in the middle of the pandemic. A professional dancer who had, among other things, danced with Beyonce on tour, she returned to Kansas City and spied an opportunity. The city was home to a burgeoning arts scene, but there was no professional talent agency for visual and performing artists.
As of last month, her 11-employee firm had already signed 50 artists to represent through her Next Paige Agency, and is launching classes and more services soon. She told me that she saw her business when she was a kid, just like Riddle did.
She received a $50,000 grant from a nonprofit called Kansas City GIFT to help in her mission, which includes putting Kansas City even more on the map as a center of the arts.
Why did she come back to Kansas City, and why is she staying? “The best way I can say it, is that home is where the heart is,” she said.
What’s the lesson in these entrepreneurs? Starting a business is hard – maybe harder than you realize – and you have to realize what motivates you. The image in the media would tell you that profit and power are the only acceptable motivations for an entrepreneur. The real picture is much more complicated, and personal – but if you’re going to succeed, you need to know yourself well enough to keep going.
Twilight Of The Giants
Kansas City is also home to two huge privately held enterprises that grew up, not coincidentally, in the early part of the last century: Hallmark and Tension Envelope. My walk through Kansas City’s arts district brought me into the shadow of the Tension Envelope sign atop an old manufacturing building.
Those two companies rode another similar wave in U.S. history: after the turn of the century saw huge technological innovations that established new networks and connected people – think the telephone, lightbulb and car – the next few decades saw both the commercialization of those inventions, and social changes that grew out of new connections and relationships.
By the early 20th century, the trust busters were moving to break up giants like Standard Oil. But it wasn’t only size that turned the government on John. D. Rockefeller.
Rockefeller’s enormity put him in the spotlight, and then, his treatment of employees and fellow businesspeople showed him to be out of touch with new social norms and ideas of equality. In fact, it was a woman journalist, Ida Tarbell, who helped the breakup along with her stellar reporting about – not to put to fine a point on it – what a jerk he was.
A cursory look at Hallmark and Tension Envelope show that they’ve grown and thrived by staying deeply connected to Kansas City. Hallmark, for instance, has an innovation center where it supports local entrepreneurs. The family that owns Tension Envelope produced one of the city’s mayors.
Rockefeller eventually became a dinosaur – albeit an ultrawealthy one — because he grew disconnected from the people around him . If you look at what’s really going on in entrepreneurial cities across the country, where the rising generation is more connected than ever before, today’s ruthless profit-seekers and gamifiers start to look like fossils, too.