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To Some, “Small Business” is Big Business

Language is a form of power. It is far more than simply communication. Its usage, evolution and application can confer or limit power and status like other forms of influence, bet they physical or mental.

Language is a form of power. It is far more than simply communication. Its usage, evolution and application can confer or limit power and status like other forms of influence, bet they physical or mental.

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Thus, we have to take great care how we wield language, and jargon is no exception. One such jargony term that so many Americans seem to use without any concern for its range of meaning to different people is “small business”. And the reason I mention this term is because there are a whole host of assumptions that many of us make consciously and unconsciously that are germane to discussions of what is popularly viewed as “socially responsible” behavior.

If we were to poll 1,000 “average Americans” and ask them just a few questions on this subject, I wonder how they would respond. First instance, how about actually asking folks how they define “small business”. And since I am not aware of any such national poll, I will go on the record and assuming that many — if not a majority of those polled would essentially equate small businesses with “mom-and-pop” establishments — the kind of family-owned neighborhood business that many Americans are familiar whose childhood predated the ubiquity of national chains and other big-box retailers.

The reality is, according to the Small Business Administration (SBA), that the definition of “small business” is as opaque as the Beltway politics in which the SBA has struggled over the past half-century since its creation.

“Smallness”, to the federal government and thus most other public and private sector agencies and entities, depends on a number of factors including gross revenues, number of employees and industry in which the firm operates. However, the short-hand for those of us who worked in this arena on Capitol Hill was simply: if it had fewer than 500 employees, it was considered a small business. That may be fine with the NFIB, the GOP-leaning lobbying group that purports to defend the interests of Small Business America, but for the rest of us who think small ought not be based on comparisons with Wal-Mart, but how many fingers and toes you need to count a firm’s salaried employees.

To most Americans, I suspect that 499 employees sounds like a pretty big number. In fact, a payroll of a $1 million or more seems fairly large in comparison to the local hardware store we patronized growing up or the candy store on the corner.

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In that same proposed poll, I’d ask respondents which type of business would you expect to be more “socially responsible”: a transnational conglomerate or a local “small business”? I’ll go on a limb and predict that the majority of respondents would think that the latter would be more likely to be socially responsible — regardless of how individuals chose to define this attribute.

So, here’s the final question, above and beyond any poll, “How do we ensure that all the talk around promoting “small business” is actually focused on the local microenterprises most of us assume politicians, policy-makers, and pundits are referring to?”

This was meant to be a rhetorical question. But I feel compelled to simply say that we ought to just, well, . . . simply say what we mean in straight-forward language and with transparent assumptions versus using our words to suggest a notion we only hope the public will confuse for something else. Otherwise, the big business of “small business” advocacy will bear little fruit for the socially conscious.

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