Pushing for change in Chicago: An interview with small business advocate Elliot Richardson

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Pushing for change in Chicago: An interview with small business advocate Elliot Richardson

About a decade ago, Elliot Richardson, a small business owner and law firm partner, became increasingly convinced Chicago’s small business community could advocate for itself more effectively. So in 2010, he co-founded the Small Business Advocacy Council, which has become an influential voice that is helping small businesses and the Chicago economy as a whole.

Among its achievements are its work to lower LLC fees that were among the highest in the nation, and to reduce red tape to make it easier to grow home based businesses. Venture Forward spoke to Elliot about the growing importance of microbusinesses, and what can be done to spur this often-overlooked part of the business community.

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Why did you start SBAC?

For as long as I can remember, there’s been a lot of lip service about what policymakers can do to help small businesses but not much action. We sat down with people from across the political spectrum and found there was a lot more uniting us than dividing us. So we created SBAC to pull people together to push for good policies for the small business community in a way that transcends politics, and it’s really taken off.

From a policy perspective, how do the needs of small businesses and microbusinesses differ?

In many cases, what’s good for one is good for the other. For example, we were successful in lowering LLC fees in Illinois, which had been among the highest in the nation, and in eliminating the need for most small businesses to obtain approval for a sign permit. These were good for everyone. But we also pushed for ordinances that allow people to use more of their home’s square footage to operate a home-based business. This was more laser focused on the needs of microbusinesses.

But I want to point out that this is not an either-or. There are ample resources out there for Chicago and Illinois to invest in both new microbusinesses and in our small businesses that are struggling to recover from the pandemic. We’re going to need all of them to have a full recovery.

Why are microbusinesses important to Chicago’s economy as a whole?

Microbusinesses are important because some of them will grow to become job creators and support local communities. For example, a major need today is to revitalize struggling commercial corridors, and we know that reducing commercial vacancies is crucial. But policies to reduce those vacancies are not enough. There must be a phase two, to make sure there are businesses to fill those vacancies in the years ahead. So we need policymakers to support the businesses which are going to grow, move into storefronts, generate revenue, create jobs and revitalize communities.

We’re witnessing the Great Resignation. Clearly, many people are reassessing their careers and lives, and it is important to bring people back into the workforce. What should policymakers do to respond to these major trends?

Policymakers should focus on increasing participation in the workforce. That means helping families struggling with childcare so they can get back to work, and by bringing people into the workforce, like previously incarcerated individuals. Incentiving small businesses to retrain and hire those who lost their jobs or businesses because of the pandemic will also help get people back to work.

What kind of policies should be adopted to help microbusinesses in particular?

Policymakers should be allocating funds to ensure the success of microbusinesses that started during the pandemic so they have a chance to scale up. They should also reduce red tape, such as by enacting occupational licensing reforms and other measures that remove unnecessary barriers for entrepreneurs.

We’re also looking at ways to encourage local residents to invest in their communities through things like intrastate equity crowdfunding, and by making it easier for property owners to renovate their properties so they are available when microbusinesses need them, at prices that are not unnecessarily prohibitive.

Are the economic participation trends sparked by the pandemic good or bad for cities like Chicago?

The pandemic has devastated many small businesses and that is tragic. However, the trends now present both an opportunity and a risk. It’s an opportunity because we have a chance to reimagine our economy and grow new businesses and new types of participation. But without appropriate policies, our economy will suffer. The train is going down the tracks towards a new kind of economy, and policymakers should get on board and go wherever it leads to foster development over time.

Your organization has been involved in many successful advocacy efforts. What’s the key to success?

It’s all about coalition building, bringing people together. It’s easy for small business owners to feel like they’re on an island, and not able to influence policy. So we create coalitions to help. For example, we brought together a robust number of business organizations to advocate for making PPP loans tax deductible. When you get that kind of critical mass, small businesses can have a very big voice.

What did you find compelling about the Venture Forward project?

Data is important in understanding what sort of policies are going to help microbusinesses. The Venture Forward data provides useful information to inform us as we formulate, develop and advocate for certain policies. For example, the Venture Forward data shows that access to capital is the biggest challenge for microbusinesses in Chicago. Well, we knew this was an issue, but the data confirmed that a very significant number of microbusiness owners used personal assets to fund their business. And it was important to see the number of microbusinesses started by women, and African American and Latin X entrepreneurs. This is important information as we push for policies to support disadvantaged communities in Chicago.

The data also showed that a high number of people are relying on their microbusinesses as their primary source of income. I think this means these people are in it for the long haul. They’re in it to win, not as a side job.