As the third child in a family of four, I developed a work ethic at an early age. My family had always lived from check to check. So if I wanted anything at all for myself, I had to work for it. Allowances were unheard of. Birthdays were acknowledged with hand written promises that when finances improved, I would get a gift. Since family finances never improved, my first minimum wage job at age fifteen seemed like finding a goldmine. For the first time in my life, I was able to choose my own clothes, buy my own music, and join my friends at the movies. What a rush! I was so thrilled to have spending money that I scarcely noticed skipping meals and staying up late at night to juggle work and school. With great pride, I saved money to buy my first vehicle, pay for college, and help my parents pay their bills.
Conventional wisdom taught me I was taking a responsible approach to building my future. I pursued my education while working part time, and graduated in the top percent of my high school and undergraduate college class. My college tuition was paid with a scholarship. My graduate school was also funded, based on my academic success. With so many rewards for my efforts, I never seriously considered any option beyond getting a job when I graduated. I continued working late and eating poorly. I thought that making these sacrifices to secure and maintain a good job was the route to a better life.
During my years as an employee, I was recognized as a well-educated professional. I was an environmental scientist developing cutting edge technologies for an environment in need of repair. I was patenting solutions. With each promotion, my work increased, my health declined, and my family scattered. Suddenly, my illness crossed a threshold, and reached a level that prohibited me from doing my job. I had no choice but to leave.
This is when my real education began. This is when I learned that the insurance and benefits we are promised as employees are inaccessible when you become ill. The stress and difficulty of pursuing those benefits will surely destroy what is left of your health. I was out of a job. I needed an income. I was unemployable. Nothing was secure. So with some help from my husband, I started a business.
Entering the world of the self-employed has been the most transformational educational experience of my life. Working in the absence of an administrative guidance and institutional policies has altered the way I view budgets, long term plans, and the relevance of nearly every task I pursue. In academia and government, budgets are never transparent. One learns to spend what one can. In a small business, one learns quickly to spend what is necessary.
In a large institution, growth of any kind is rewarded. Big programs make headlines. In a small business, growth must be managed. Growing too quickly disrupts cash flows.
In large institutions, people skills go unrewarded. In small business, healthy relationships are the key to survival. Starting my own business and working from home has been key to restoring peace and unity within my family. I’ve learned more in months as an entrepreneur than I learned in two careers as an employed educator and scientist. If increased knowledge and a better health are assets, I’m already in the black. You see, jobs build organizations. Self-employment builds people.
In the 1890’s, ninety percent of the US workforce was made up of independent business owners. Today, 90% of the US workforce is comprised of employees. It is now my belief that this shift from the building of entrepreneurs to the training of employees may be the single greatest force driving the decline of our economy, our health, and our family life. I challenge those voices in politics to stop demanding more jobs to consider the possibility that in order to build a sustainable economy, what we really need are more small businesses.