(This article originally appeared in The Guardian)
Ben Cardin comes from a family of small business owners. His grandfather, who emigrated to the US from Russia more than 120 years ago, turned an independent grocery store into a chain of food distribution businesses. His success was one of the factors helping Cardin enter the world of politics at the age of 24, where he ultimately rose to become an influential member of the US Senate. He is now in his third term representing Maryland, and the ranking member of the small business and entrepreneurship committee.
Cardin knows that the environment for business owners and startups today is much different than in his grandfather’s time. Back then there were fewer rules, less competition and lower barriers to enter a marketplace. Today’s entrepreneurs face intense opposition from big brands, high costs like healthcare for their families, more hurdles for securing capital to finance their dreams and a far greater level of rules, bureaucratic requirements and paperwork that creates headaches and challenges. And that’s if you’re white. The challenges are far greater for minorities looking to get into the game.
This year, Cardin has been working on three bills that can help change that.
He has sponsored the Minority Business Resiliency Act of 2021, which makes permanent and expands the reach of the Minority Business Development Agency, a part of the Department of Commerce that promotes growth and competitiveness of minority-owned businesses, including Hispanic and Latino American, Asian Pacific American, African American and Native American businesses.
He is also advocating for the Unlocking Opportunities in Emerging Markets Act, which would establish an Office of Emerging Markets within the Small Business Administration’s Office of Capital Access, to ensure that the government’s SBA has access to capital initiatives to address the specific needs of entrepreneurs in underserved communities in a coordinated way.
Finally, Cardin is moving the Ushering Progress by Leveraging Innovation and Future Technology Act of 2019 through committees. The act will foster innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems in underserved communities by providing historically black colleges and universities, minority serving institutions and community colleges with the resources to establish and expand incubators and accelerators for underserved entrepreneurs.
Progress has been made on all these bills, but Cardin admits that it’s a slog.
“We are very hopeful that these bills, which enjoy strong support among both Democrats and Republicans, fill a needed gap,” he told me in a recent podcast interview. “If you look at the traditional tools of the SBA and you look at how well they’re doing in addressing the needs of underserved communities, they’re not doing very well. They’re not making the penetration we need.”
Unfortunately, these bills still have a way to go. According to Cardin, the Minority Business Resiliency Act has “cleared through the committees” but has not been attached to any other legislation that would be needed to ensure passage. The Unlocking Opportunities in Emerging Markets Act is still in its initial stages and faces a long road to passage. The Ushering Progress by Leveraging Innovation and Future Technology Act was introduced in February and faces a similar process.
Cardin, like many others in Washington, understands that a disproportionately low number of minority business owners get the capital, resources and opportunities they need to establish themselves and their businesses, compared with their white counterparts. Yes, there’s systemic racism. Yes, there’s a lack of education and resources. Progress has been made but how does government play a role? To Cardin, it’s not about handouts. It’s about support.
“It starts with building the institutions in all of our communities, particularly among African Americans and Latinos and women,” he says. “We can accomplish this by strengthening the mission lenders and the community development and minority depository financial institutions. That is what’s necessary in order to establish the ability of these communities to show first-hand the success of entrepreneurship, which leads to further opportunities.”
Politicians and leaders of all colors and backgrounds have spoken about the need for government to support these entrepreneurs. And yet bills like these — and other good ones sponsored by members of the House small business committee — are slow to attract the support they need to pass, if they pass at all. Given that these bills cost the government so little, yet provide so much potential economic benefit, you have to wonder why.