When Abwe Abedi got his mask business off the ground, one of the first things he thought of was sending a donation of 25 masks to Asa Hutchinson, the Republican governor of Arkansas.
“If I see it, I can make it,” Abedi told his friend, Khalid Ahmadzai, when Ahmadzai reached out to him with the idea for starting the operation. They launched and sold more than 600 masks through Facebook and found Abedi a platform, the Arkansas Arts & Fashion Forum, to train others to sew.
Abedi came to the United States from the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania. Abedi and his family spent 22 years there – he worked as a tailor — before arriving in Northwest Arkansas in 2018.
The fact that he and his family were welcome in Arkansas was thanks to Hutchinson, who opted to welcome refugees early this year, when the Trump administration was speaking publicly against them and giving states the option to turn them away.
“Immigrants bring energy, thirst for freedom, and a desire to pursue the American dream. This is America’s strength and part of our future,” he said in a statement at the time.
When the pandemic started, very early, Abedi was well-equipped to adapt after those years of living in the camp. He, his wife, and the six children with him get one of the few asylum slots to the United States because one of his daughters had worsening sickle cell anemia. Abedi got a job working at Chick Fil A, as a dishwasher, which was hard.
“You have to be open to accept the new normal. It’s going to be alright,” Abedi told his friend, Ahmadzai, director of economic advancement for a nonprofit called Canopy.
As I watch the election unfold, I rue the deaths of local papers that gave voice to the small businesspeople in their communities, like people like Abedi. The voice of small business sounds a lot different than the wrenching anger of politicians and policymakers now being expressed in the national media.
In the pandemic, I’ve traveled more than most people, reporting on entrepreneurs in Arkansas (as part of a project sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation), Appalachia and Montana. I’ve gone walking in my own community, in Alexandria, Va.
In each place, I met entrepreneurs and small businesspeople focused on the long-term health of their businesses, and their communities. De facto, that has meant finding ways to work across political divides.
The peacemaker John Paul Lederach says breaking out of a cycle of violence requires a four-step process.
First, people realize they are connected in a web of relationships that includes their enemies.
Then, they don’t accept superficial binary narratives. “There’s a life story going on,” Lederach said. “Curiosity opens up.”
Third, there are unexpected creative acts. Perhaps you find a new way to frame a question, or you send masks to a Republican governor. (He’d have to notice, of course).
And then, people have to stick with relationships. Which, as we all know, can be hard.
Scenes From A Nation Undivided
In Montana, I sat around a campfire with two entrepreneurial families
, the Albers, who own a sawyer company, and the Cheffs, who own an outfitting company.
It’s no accident that the Forest Rangers figuring out how to lobby for the trail budget they need to keep the Bob Marshall safe look to small guide companies for help. Or that the Blackfeet Tribe, as it fought a decades-long battle to void a mineral rights contract on its land, built a coalition of local small businesses to help. There is a big business in the area — Xanterra, which has the Glacier Park concession contract. It’s owned by billionaire Philip Frederick Anschutz, who also owns oil, railroads, telecommunications and entertainment companies. Safe to say nobody around here has his phone number.
In Alexandria, I fell into a conversation with Booker T. Wilkins
, drawn into his barbershop shop by the men outside who come for a weekly prayer group. He reads the biography of Booker T. Washington, for whom he’s named, a few times every year. In 1895, Washington gave a famous speech advocating for Black power through entrepreneurship and education. “I feel like I can do anything,” Wilkins said. “Because he did so much.”
In Appalachia, I met Geoff Marietta who with his wife, Sky
, moved to Appalachia, where she had grown up, after they both earned advanced degrees at Harvard. The duo run a network of small businesses in real estate, technology and specialty retail. They just opened Moonbow Mercantile – ice cream, candy and local handcrafts– in nearby Williamsburg. Geoff Marietta also runs Invest 606
, an accelerator that awards $30,000 in prize money to small businesses. Previous winners have included a lavender farm that’s invented a de-budding machine for flower-based botanicals and a school administrator with a way to retrofit doors to make them bulletproof.
“The wildlands and authentic culture is not replicable anywhere,” he says. “Appalachia is totally undiscovered yet has insane potential.
An Interest In The Long-Term Health Of Their Communities
I don’t mean to say that small businesspeople are more moral, or better, somehow, than anybody else. They vary. But their incentives are different. You can’t run a restaurant in York, Pa., like Mandy Arnold does
, by getting angry at the suburbanites who won’t come downtown. You have to find a way to make both downtown dwellers and suburbanites comfortable. “If our storefronts do not come back, our restaurants and our small retail, it’s really going to be hard for downtowns, especially for Main Streets,” she said.
We’re at a turning point now: a turning point in the presidential election, obviously, but also, this winter, a turning point for the economy. Come spring, as the virus starts to come under control, we’ll need to decide the priorities for a recovery. We need to renew small business and entrepreneurship. That’s in part because of the economic energy they provide.
They create two-thirds of net new jobs and are the driving force behind U.S. innovation and competitiveness,” says the SBA
, which tracks business trends for the U.S. government. Small businesses accounted for 44% of all economic activity in the United States and were responsible for $5.9 Trillion in GDP in 2014, the last year for which data are available.
When we lose small businesses, our divisions deepen. In the 30 years leading up to the Great Recession, fully 80% of metro areas experienced an increase in the number of firms annually. This trend was completely reversed by the Great Recession, after which only 20% of metro areas have seen an increasing number of companies created. New business formation has been depressed in most of the country.
An Aside: Immigrant Entrepreneurs In Particular
Immigrant entrepreneurs like Abedi and Ahmadzai start businesses
at twice the rate of the native-born population, according to the Kauffman Foundation. We have lost a whole generation of small businesses under Trump administration policies, and the pandemic.
“For two years straight, the U.S. saw an uncommonly small increase in its foreign-born population. In each year (2017 to 2018 and 2018 to 2019), it grew by barely more than 200,000—well below annual gains earlier in the decade, which ranged between 400,000 and 1 million,” reported William Frey
of the Brookings Institute. He also found that immigrants were tending in greater numbers to settle in the middle of the country.
Backbone Of America
The other reason we need to restore entrepreneurship and small business is that they are one of the beating hearts of our civil society – and it’s been clear this week how badly it needs to be restored.
In Arkansas, thanks to Hutchinson’s willingness, Abedi’s friendship with Ahmadzai, and the support of organizations like the Forum and Canopy, which offers training for immigrant entrepreneurs, Abedi has become a leader.
“He spends his days making masks for us to distribute to the community, leading sewing courses to other people in his resettled community, and working one on one with designers in our Designer Residency Program on creating prototypes, sharpening their sewing skills, and discussing small batch production options,” Robin Atkinson, CEO of Arkansas Arts & Fashion Forum
, wrote me in an email. “His skill set has become invaluable to the organization and we look forward to him expanding his teaching offerings in 2021.”
My focus on small businesses off the coasts is not to belie the importance of what’s being written in the national press now. I’ve reported on people around the world struggling to build the elements of civil society some Republican leaders seem willing to destroy, like trust in elections and the media, and standards of discourse that exclude hate. In countries where the political system isn’t functioning well, the business community often steps up, an imperfect but necessary voice for peace. We’ll see if big business leaders step forward.
I’ve seen small businesses across the country be the civil society we need. We call them the backbone of America. I just wish they had a stronger voice now.