Mentorship, health care, and reduced government paperwork were among the issues four local business owners relayed to two members of Congress when a meeting of the House Energy and Trade Subcommittee of the Small Business Committee came to the North Shore.
The committee gave owners of small businesses based in Lake Forest, Northbrook and beyond a chance to tell two members of the United States House of Representatives what the government can do to help them and what it should stop doing. They met on December 11 at Deerfield Village Hall.
The purpose of the hearing was to learn what the federal government can do to help entrepreneurs start businesses and what roadblocks to success it can eliminate, according to Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa), the subcommittee chair who ran the meeting.
Appearing before the committee were Steven Whittington of Lake Bluff, Meg Barnhart of Lake Forest, David Borris of Highland Park and Cheryl Besenjak, who has a greenhouse for her business, Grow Well Farms, at Lake Forest Country Day School.
Both Blum and Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Deerfield), who is the subcommittee’s ranking member, listened to testimony and asked questions. Blum indicated he was listening and ready to act.
“I am going to be blunt,” said Blum. “I want you to tell me what the federal government can do to help you and how it is hurting you. I’m going to take copious notes and pass them up the chain. We have oversight of the Small Business Administration.”
Health Care Is an Important Issue
Whittington, who started and runs Lake Forest-based LifeWorking Enterprise, said he wanted to find a way for small business owners to secure affordable health care insurance to remove that as a barrier to leaving a corporate job and starting their own company.
“One of the most important (risks) and frankly the most uncertain today is health care,” said Whittington. “The specter of health care costs could be significant enough to stymie an entrepreneurial startup. We need help to put something in place through a trade association or some organization so we can get the same benefits large businesses have.”
Barnhart, who cofounded Lake Forest-based The Zen of Slow Cooking, said coming from a community like Lake Forest she was able to find mentorship both from community members as well the city’s incubator, the Lake Forest Business Accelerator. She said it is not so easy elsewhere, and suggested ways the SBA can help.
“Get the SBA to give us tools to operate a small business. We could use a template to develop a business plan,” said Barnhart, , suggesting the tools could be put on a website.
After the hearing, Blum said he heard more about mentorship than he usually does when talking to small-business people about their needs. He said most of the time they talk to him about reducing regulation and access to capital.
Business Owners Talk About Access to Capital
Borris, who has operated Northbrook-based Hel’s Kitchen for 32 years, said access to capital is important, and that one way to achieve that is assuring government continues to regulate financial institutions through the Federal Consumer Protection Bureau. He said he gets too many calls offering him loans he need not pay back for a year.
“This is just predatory lending,” said Borris. “Small businesses take the loan and often after a year they can’t pay it back. Our employees don’t have a problem with payday loans because we make them loans. With the right protections (access to capital) will explode into (business) growth.”
Other issues discussed included the importance of business incubators offering mentorship and access to resources, the impact of immigration and tax reform on small business, a skills gap that can make it harder to hire qualified employees and incentives for public-private partnerships. Schneider said he was glad to hear concerns from local business owners.
“It is helpful to hear from the small business community, to hear about their needs and their passion that drives their success,” said Schneider “We heard about what they need to get a leg up.”
Blum said the subcommittee holds one committee meeting a year outside of Washington, D.C. This year it is in Illinois’ 10th Congressional District because Schneider is the ranking member. In 2018 there will be one in Iowa.