Op-Eds

Earlier this year, I visited Chocolate Dreams & Sweet Things bakery in Nebraska City. As I spoke with owner Rebecca Rowe, it was hard to believe she began the business selling pies out of her kitchen. Today, Rebecca runs her thriving bakery out of a renovated brick-and-mortar storefront, thrilling customers with her famous 3-D cakes.

Fifty miles west, Lincoln is home to a booming startup industry with several tech businesses, leading many to refer to it as a “silicon prairie.” Hudl is one such business. The instant replay video management firm began in 2006 with only three employees. Today, the globally recognized sports startup employs more than 400 people and serves 3.5 million users on six continents.

But across our country, companies like these are getting rarer. According to the Economic Innovation Group, startup businesses like Chocolate Dreams or Hudl represented nearly 17 percent of all companies in America in 1977. By 2013, they had dropped to just 8 percent.

America faces a crisis of entrepreneurship. Experts are calling it the “startup slowdown,” and it carries real consequences for rural states like Nebraska.

Why is this happening? The primary culprits: lack of access to capital and government regulation.

Limited access to startup capital is a high hurdle for entrepreneurs big and small. In the technology sector, many venture capital firms still have their sights set on big cities along the coasts. According to research from the University of Toronto, America contains more than 43,000 ZIP codes. But only four percent of these ZIP codes contain businesses that enjoy access to venture capital investment. Even Hudl CEO David Graff noted, in an interview in 2014, how this lack of access limited the company in its beginning stages.

The Senate’s Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, of which I am a member, recently heard testimony from experts regarding the startup slowdown. One witnesses, Donna Harris, is co-founder of 1776, an initiative that connects entrepreneurs with experts to help their businesses take flight. Ms. Harris delivered powerful testimony, stating: “Those who do start businesses are often left wondering if they shouldn’t be moving away from their home cities and states and whether they can actually succeed.”

This hit home. Many bright, young Nebraskans grow up with dreams of starting a business. Sadly, many feel they need to leave to do it. Our government has a responsibility to remove barriers to opportunity, not create them.

To help address these issues, I introduced the Microloan Program Modernization Act. My legislation will help improve the Small Business Administration’s already successful Microloan Program by eliminating senseless regulations that hamper its efficacy. The Microloan Program helps many entrepreneurs across America start and grow businesses by facilitating, through non-profit, community-based intermediaries, low-dollar loans. Currently, these intermediaries face unnecessary restraints on how and when they can provide technical assistance to applicants. My bill would eliminate these restraints and give these intermediaries the flexibility they need to provide better assistance to the entrepreneur, increase odds of long-term business success, and keep default rates low.

Washington must understand the challenges facing America’s entrepreneurs. That’s why today, I’m bringing the U.S. Senate to the University of Nebraska’s Innovation Campus here in Lincoln. I will chair a field hearing of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee and hear testimony from Nebraska’s entrepreneurial community. Joining us will be Dan Hoffman of Invest Nebraska, T.J. Casady of Union Bank and Trust, Julia Parker of the Omaha Small Business Network, Eric Dinger of Powderhook, and Jon Anderson of LI-COR Biosciences. This will be my fourth U.S. Senate field hearing in Nebraska. I believe Washington needs to listen to local communities, not the other way around.

Our local experts can teach us more about the real challenges they face and how Washington’s policies impact people at home. These challenges are felt the most by people who have the least. Why would the government make it harder for entrepreneurs to start a business?

Regulations have their role, but too often they hamstring our entrepreneurs. Let’s make it easier for people like Rebecca Rowe to access the tools they need to build businesses in their communities.

The seeds of industry have been sown on our Silicon Prairie. Let’s allow them to thrive.