Small business is the driver of the economy


On a trip to Atlanta to host a public event of my writers’ circle, a walk in the city revealed what might otherwise have been missed between the airport, the hotel, and sundry sights. Atlanta is a global city with a rich local history. It is impossible not to become teary-eyed in the Martin Luther King historical park, to not marvel at how a man who had seen and suffered such hate could still believe in love. Between that, the botanical gardens, the aquarium and other delights, a weekend may be pleasurably passed without walking the streets at all. But it is during a more leisurely stroll that you get a glimpse into the soul of a city, and what makes it unique. For many, this is not only Atlanta’s powerful civil rights history but also its entrepreneurial spirit, especially its small businesses. 

On a lane lined with mostly minority-owned shops is a small one selling body butters and creams. While trying out a sweet-smelling hand cream, I learn from the owner, a Black woman, her business mantra. “I am not a big chain, don’t need a huge number of customers, just a few committed ones,” she says. “For them I will do anything and let the rest go.” “That is how I think about friendships,” I chuckle. She shares how her shop, purchased on a low interest bank loan, allowed her to break out of a cycle of intergenerational poverty, how it helped provide her son with the opportunities she did not have. Growing up in the inner city, she and her sisters could not afford fancy creams. “So I say, that will be my business!” She shows me a special tea tree and mint foot cream she concocted for a regular customer, and rose and almond milk bath gels for another. “Do you have a favorite scent, girl?” she asks. “Geranium and Vetiver,” I reply, instantly contrite about not choosing more readily available ones. “And strawberry, lavender,” I quickly add. She gives me a knowing smile and tells me to return the next day.

As a child walking by the Dhakuria lake in Kolkata with my grandfather, I would see a woman selling chappals, another homemade fried snacks, yet another painted wooden toys. On the way were many tiny shops: the sweet shop, the flower shop, the “masala mashi” with her freshly ground spices, the “blouse lady” who tailored perfect pairings for saris. Yet when we think of business and entrepreneurship, we often imagine savvy, suit-wearing men securing venture capital and striking deals, or even an earnest nerd with a file full of papers, not a poor woman who never went to school and sells handmade toys and trinkets out of a makeshift store. 

Many small businesses struggle with access to capital, networks, and scaling after the start-up phase. They need help with legal, financial, operational, accounting, marketing and, increasingly, e-commerce needs. But these challenges can be particularly severe for poor women. Some time ago, I moderated a panel discussion on women in finance at my university’s business school. The panelists, highly successful women who worked in the C-suite in corporate America and in investment banks, discussed the challenges faced by women in business and traditionally male dominated fields such as finance. One of my questions to the panel was about small businesses. If even these women were facing challenges, what about poorer women, let alone those who operate in the informal sector, creating jobs, reducing social inequalities, and serving critical community needs while receiving little systemic support? 

An inclusive economy and a fairer financial system must support their needs better. While some of this support comes from the government, such as tax credits or the relief funds that were disbursed to American small businesses during Covid-19, there are many other innovative solutions that draw upon public-private partnerships and transdisciplinary educational initiatives. For example, a university center on finance, law and policy that I am affiliated with engages business and policy students in providing neighborhood entrepreneurs with technical, legal, and accounting assistance. An innovative model, it could be replicated in many settings. 

When I stop by the cosmetic shop in Atlanta the next day, on my way to the airport, the owner has a jar of whipped body butter and a big smile. She uncorks the top; the warm woodiness of Vetiver mixed in with the floral scent of geranium is to die for. Delighted, I buy that along with two big bottles of strawberry and lavender lotions. “But I don’t live here, I can’t be a loyal customer,” I rue. “Oh, you can and you will. I will see you the next time you are here.” She is right. That woman knows scents, and she knows people. And her business continues to thrive.



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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