How we can kick-start economic growth

On our televisions and Twitter feeds, candidates on the left and right sometimes seem like they're talking about two different countries. They diagnose different problems and put forth different visions. But on one point, all seem to agree: Expanding entrepreneurship is how we'll kick-start economic growth.

Entrepreneur small business
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Income inequality has exposed fissures and racial tensions in our cities; expanding entrepreneurship can provide new economic pathways with the potential to lift whole communities.

Automation and cheap foreign labor are upending job roles and job stability; expanding entrepreneurship can help us create new businesses and new industries.

We educate the best and brightest at our universities, only to watch our broken immigration system send them back home to compete against us; expanding entrepreneurship can empower talent in our own backyard to create good jobs here at home.

Before I ring the closing bell at Nasdaq on Friday, I will deliver an address on the State of Entrepreneurship. As the voice for small business in President Obama's cabinet, I will report that after seven hard years of rebuilding, the conditions to start or grow a business have substantially improved. But I will also report that in an era of disruption, complacency could yet be our undoing,

In periods of economic anxiety, there's a reflexive flight to safety. Entrepreneurship is full of risk. But sometimes, taking a risk is the safest thing we can do. If our small business sector were a country, our output would rank No. 5, above Germany or Japan, according to data we've compiled from the CIA's World Fact Book and the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Small firms employ half of the private sector. They're creating two out of three net, new jobs. The middle market is our most powerful path to create broadly shared growth.

The American job market has bounced back, but conventional small business credit has not. It's now only at 83 percent of its pre-recession level, according to the Cleveland Fed. Compared to 2008 (in inflation-adjusted figures), that's a $58 billion dollar shortfall.

So the question must be asked: Why have so many banks closed the door of opportunity to so many in the small business market?

America's demographics are changing. Our financial institutions must take this opportunity to diversify their thinking and their portfolios.

"Entrepreneurship is full of risk. But sometimes, taking a risk is the safest thing we can do."

Last year, more venture capital was injected into our economy than any time since the 1990s. But roughly two-thirds of that investment is going to three states and 25 zip codes, according to the State Science & Technology Institute. Hispanics and African-Americans represent a quarter of the population, yet only one percent of venture capital flows to Hispanic or black entrepreneurs, according to Pitchbook's annual report on venture capital.

Women control 73 percent of household spending and have an especially valuable perspective on what women want to buy, according to research from the Boston Consulting Group. Yet women-owned businesses receive just 4 percent of VC funding, according to Pitchbook. Warren Buffett has marveled at how far we've come using only half of the talent in the country.

If we want to expand the middle class, and pass on a healthier country to our children and theirs, we can't be lulled into thinking there won't be long-term consequences if Wall Street continues to invest in the same businesses in the same places led by the same people doing the same things. That's "entrepreneurtia," and it's a recipe for decline.

In America's evolving economic story, change is the only constant. Fifty years ago, Detroit was the center of American innovation, but now the plates are shifting again, and we're experiencing a Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The overheated rhetoric and mutual distrust between Washington and Wall Street must not obscure this unshakable fact: Capitalism requires cooperation. Markets work best with transparency, liquidity and efficient and effective regulation, and America works best with robust economic opportunity, forged by capital flowing freely to all segments of society.

There is an under-capitalized pool of next-generation entrepreneurs waiting to be discovered found in the heartland and in our mid-sized cities. They are graduating from our historically black colleges and Hispanic serving institutions. They have insights and connections to their communities and novel ideas and products to serve them.

Wall Street and Washington can come together to empower a new wave of diverse innovators – men and women who are constrained not by the power of their ideas, but by their limited capacity to commercialize them. The way to secure our long-term economic future is by expanding access to capital to America's most promising entrepreneurs who've yet to be discovered.

Commentary by Maria Contreras-Sweet, who founded a Los Angeles community bank before becoming the head of the U.S. Small Business Administration in 2014.

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