Reflecting on President's Day: Church with Jimmy Carter

Reflecting on President's Day: Church with Jimmy Carter by Victor W. Hwang, vice president of Entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation

From left to right: Rosalynn Carter, Jimmy Carter and Victor W. Hwang

On the first Sunday of this month, I finally did something I've dreamed about for over two decades. I went to church with former President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter in their hometown of Plains, Georgia.

What I didn't expect was that being in Plains would be a poignant reminder of the power—not of presidents—but of individual Americans. That surprised me since my work is already focused on empowering individuals. In my role as vice president of Entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation, I never lose sight of that mission.

I wasn't in Georgia to go to church, and no one expected me. I had spoken at a TEDx event hosted by The Clubhouse in Augusta the day before, and I couldn't resist the drive to Plains. I had always been fascinated by the humility of this former president who cared enough about his fellow Americans to teach Sunday school weekly at his local church.

At the TEDx event, I had spoken about the power of individual Americans to create jobs. Did you know that virtually all net new jobs in America are created by businesses younger than five years old? This means that new jobs come from new companies started by one or more entrepreneurs.

In addition, declining productivity is tied to declining innovation in existing firms, which implies that growth in our economy is tied to new companies. Also, for every 1 percent increase in the rate of new businesses started in a state, there is a 2 percent decline in the poverty rate. So, creating new businesses helps fight poverty.

More and more, research shows that our nation's long-term economic well-being comes from the ability of individual Americans to start and grow new businesses.

Still, I was surprised to hear Jimmy Carter extolling not the power of presidents, but the power of individual Americans. In his Sunday school talk at Maranatha Baptist Church, he cited Tolstoy's War and Peace, saying, "It's about small people.… The course of great events was determined not by the tsar but by the actions of ordinary people.… We as individuals, collectively, will decide the course of the human race."

Jimmy Carter could have been describing entrepreneurs when he went on to say, "With freedom, every one of us makes thousands of decisions to determine 'this is the kind of person I'm going to be.'"

"For every 1 percent increase in the rate of new businesses started in a state, there is a 2 percent decline in the poverty rate."

However, something has changed in our nation. People aren't making the same decisions. The biggest economic challenge in America today is that not enough people are starting businesses. The rate of Americans starting new businesses has been falling for over 40 years. We have about half as many people starting businesses today as we did when I was a child. When Jimmy Carter was president. Somewhere along the way, America lost its mojo, our entrepreneurial spirit.

Every month, out of a thousand Americans, about three will start new businesses. The question is: How do we tilt the odds? How do we increase three to four in any given community?

The answer is that individual actions matter. If you've been thinking about starting a new business, what's holding you back? Take the next step. It's hard, I know, but there is help. One place you might start is right here, where you can find education, community and support.

And if you're one of the 997 who won't start a business this month, that's OK. But what are you doing to help those other three people?

Simple things mean a lot to new entrepreneurs. Make introductions. Buy their new product. Spread the word about them. Our research at Kauffman shows those things matter. In fact, we've found that the success of entrepreneurs depends a lot on what the 997 do to support the work of the three. So, if you can't be one of the three, then be an awesome member of the 997.

As Jimmy Carter taught us in church, "The next major phase of human evolution is to learn how we get along with one another." A simple place to start is by supporting the entrepreneurs you know. It's easy to do. Entrepreneurs are the ordinary, everyday heroes who happen to be creating new jobs, growing GDP and making our lives better.

And that's my takeaway from Plains. Ultimately, it's not presidents who matter. It's ordinary individuals.

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