The Self-Made Myth: Debunking Conservatives' Favorite -- And Most Dangerous -- Fiction
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Over and over, the point gets made: public universities -- and the good public schools that feed them, and the funding programs that put them within financial reach -- have hatched millions of American entrepreneurs who might not have been fledged without that opportunity to get an education.
* The support of the Small Business Administration and other government agencies. Ben Cohen notes that almost all the business training he and Jerry Greenfield had came from extension courses at the University of Vermont and Penn State, and small brochures produced by the SBA. And as they spun up, they also got an Urban Development Action Grant from the federal government. Other interviewees started their businesses in incubators or other quarters provided or arranged by their local city governments.
* A strong regulatory environment that protected their businesses from being undercut by competitors willing to cut corners, and ensured that their manufacturing inputs are of consistently high quality. Glynn Lloyd of Boston's City Fresh Foods points out that nobody in the food business can get by without reliable sources of clean water; and that the USDA inspection process is an important piece of his quality control.
* Enforceable copyright and intellectual property laws that enabled them to protect good ideas. Abigail Disney recalls that her father, Roy Disney, and her Uncle Walt made and lost one great cartoon character -- Oswald the Rabbit -- because they didn't have copyright protection. They didn't repeat that mistake when Mickey Mouse was born three years later, launching the Disney empire.
* A robust system of roads, ports, airports, and mass transit that enabled them to reliably move their goods both within the US, and around the world. Kim Jordan of New Belgium Brewing (the makers of Fat Tire beer) points out that "Beer is heavy, and it needs to be transported in vehicles. Certainly, the highway system has been important to New Belgium Brewing." Lloyd also points out that Boston's excellent public transit system enables him to draw on a far wider employee base.
* The government's role in creating the Internet, without which almost no modern company can function. Anirvan Chatterjee built Bookfinder.com (now a subsidiary of Amazon.com), the world's biggest online used-book marketplace, as an entirely Internet-based company -- an achievement that wouldn't have been remotely imaginable without DARPA, the establishment and enforcement of common protocols, and significant congressional investment in the 1980s to take the Internet commercial.
* The ability to issue public stock in a fair, reliable, regulated marketplace -- a benefit that raised the value of several interviewees' companies by about 30 percent overnight. Peter Barnes, founder of Working Assets, spoke with concern about the loss of trust in this system over the past decade. "The corporate scandals [Enron and Worldcom] caused people to stop trusting the numbers that companies were reporting. Imagine how much value is created by trust and the whole system that assures that trust?"
Besides the government, most of those interviewed also locate their companies in the context of a large community of customers they utterly depend on for their success. "It takes a village to raise a business," says Nikhil Arora of Back to the Roots, a sustainable products company that came about through partnerships and grants from UC Berkeley, Peet's Coffee and other interested parties.
Others are quick to acknowledge the contributions of their employees, without whom their companies wouldn't exist. When Gun Denhart and her husband sold their company, children's clothier Hanna Andersson, in 2003, they distributed a healthy portion of the sale proceeds to their employees, prorated on the basis of their length of service.