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Generation Flux

Obama, Romney, And The Forgotten Entrepreneurial Class

Election rhetoric focused on struggling small businesses completely ignores the tidal wave of creative, innovative startups sweeping the country. Fast Company's editor-in-chief bears witness to the groundswell.

[Illlustrations: Flickr user Don Relyea]

Are the presidential candidates living in the same America that I am? Apparently not.

I don’t know what statistics Obama and Romney look at when they are assessing the state of small business in America—and I really don’t care—because they are missing something. And it is big.

For all the concerns they cite about the plight of small business, from tax burdens to health care costs and so on, what pols of all stripes are missing is that America is experiencing a wave of entrepreneurialism unlike anything we’ve ever had before.

Inspired by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, by the incredible success of Steve Jobs and Apple, by nimble new industrial designers, by the myriad app-makers and startups populating Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley, and every place in between, a generation of people—young and old—are enthusiastically and optimistically setting out to build new businesses and to invent new ways of doing business. Some of them tap into new platforms like Kickstarter, Etsy, and Indiegogo. Some tap into incubators like TechStars and Y Combinator. Sometimes these entrepreneurs are moonlighting, sometimes they work within huge corporations, and sometimes, yes, they are in a garage or a coffee house or a co-working space.

But that doesn’t make this phenomenon any less real.

The presidential candidates are fond of recalling a store owner that they met in Topeka or a mechanic from Wappinger Falls. Let me share some folks that I’ve met recently: Clara Shih, 29, is a first-generation American who came out of the Chicago public schools and has built her own 90-person social-media firm, Hearsay. Aaron Levie is a college dropout who became obsessed with file-sharing and built a cloud storage business called Box that now employs hundreds of people. I’ve heard the entire class of incoming MBA students at the University of Michigan cheer each others’ ideas for startups that could revive Detroit. I’ve attended a hipster confab called Summit Series, started by a twentysomething named Elliot Bisnow, that brought together enthusiastic new-enterprise creators of all ages. I’ve met with a former general who has started his own consultancy, and an established entertainment exec who has injected high-octane risk-taking into cable-TV blandness. I’ve listened to government officials—including those within the White House—assert that innovation is rising in their sphere, and I’ve heard education officials explain how they are remaking the student experience. Rachel Shectman runs a store in New York City that completely changes what it sells at regular intervals; Cyrus Massoumi runs a business called ZocDoc that is revolutionizing how patients book appointments.

The examples are everywhere, from inner cities to rural locales. Their spirit is contagious, and rising. And they are the future of this country and of our global economy.

I’ve called this group Generation Flux (and in a week, we’ll come out with a new installment in that coverage). But to talk about the state of the American economy and not acknowledge and recognize and extoll this dynamic movement is to simply have your head in the political sand. Whatever today’s numbers show, we all know that there is a groundswell of creativity surging through our country.

I wish our candidates would recognize this group, cheer them on, and focus on encouraging their success and the success of others like them. Small business, when discussed in our political realm, seems to have been narrowed to a small-bore niche. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs and innovators are thriving. The political leaders who embrace this reality and align themselves and their policies with making these efforts the foundation of our future economy will be on the right side of history—and, ultimately, on the right side of the ballot tallies as well.