(Special to The Root) — In today's economy, entrepreneurs play a critical role in bolstering America's economic vitality and competitiveness throughout the world. Our small-business owners and innovators have always been united by the shared American dream that every person, with hard work and dedication, has the potential to achieve remarkable things. In his State of the Union address earlier this week, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to this dream — to creating new ladders of opportunity and strengthening America's entrepreneurial infrastructure to ensure that small-business owners have the tools and resources they need to succeed.
During Black History Month, we are given the opportunity to reflect on the important role of African-American entrepreneurs — including those small-business owners who helped pave the way for future generations. One of these entrepreneurs was my grandfather — a small-business owner whose landscaping company became one of the first African-American-owned firms in Indiana to win a state contract.
His business exemplified the important role that entrepreneurs play throughout the country, particularly in underserved communities. He made a point of supporting our community by hiring African Americans who had been cut out of the job market by segregation. Many of his employees prospered, and some even went on to become entrepreneurs themselves.
In addition to inspiring new generations to achieve their own successes, stories like this demonstrate the critical importance of fostering a more inclusive vision of entrepreneurship — one that helps expand access and opportunity to more entrepreneurs in more neighborhoods across the country. As President Obama outlined, we must also invest in skills training for American workers; strengthen our growing manufacturing sector; and improve our roads, bridges and other infrastructure nationwide to give entrepreneurs a competitive foundation on which to build their businesses.
At the U.S. Small Business Administration, we are committed to supporting minority-owned small businesses and underserved communities through programs such as Small Loan Advantage and Community Advantage, which are helping to fill market gaps in smaller-dollar loans and loans to underserved communities. These programs also open up SBA loan products to mission-based and nonprofit lenders.
SBA also helps support high-growth entrepreneurs through the Small Business Investment Company program. This important program is authorized to invest up to $3 billion annually in funds that deploy this capital to high-growth entrepreneurs. In 2012 the SBIC program had its third consecutive record-breaking year.
In 2013 — 150 years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and a mere 50 years after thousands of Americans came together in 1963 to march for equality in Washington, D.C. — minority-owned small businesses are one of the fastest-growing segments of our economy, and an engine of opportunity for millions of hardworking men and women in our communities.
Empowering these businesses, and embracing an inclusive view of entrepreneurship, is essential to our long-term economic growth and global competitiveness. We must ensure that more people across the country have access to the capital, technical assistance and support networks they need to help them start businesses, create jobs and grow our economy.
As President Obama said on Tuesday, "a growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs — that must be the North Star that guides our efforts." This month, as we honor the example of ordinary citizens who fought tirelessly for equal rights and opportunities, we also reaffirm our responsibility to support the innovators and business owners who are following in their footsteps today — recognizing that with the right tools, resources and training, American entrepreneurs from all walks of life can achieve great things.
Marie C. Johns is deputy administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration and will be a guest on The Root Live webcast on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.