What Carly Fiorina Would Do to Make Small Businesses More Powerful

As Carly Fiorina explores a presidential bid, she sits down with Inc. to discuss how policy changes could strengthen entrepreneurship. By Jeremy Quittner

Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard and a potential U.S. presidential candidate for 2016, certainly doesn’t pull any punches.

And Fiorina, also one of the most powerful businesswomen in the U.S., says she’s concerned about the state of entrepreneurship and the travails of the middle class. That explains her interest in participating in the multi-year Milstein Commission, which released its report on Wednesday about whether entrepreneurs can save the middle class from losing ground. She served as a co-chair of the commission with AOL co-founder Steve Case.

In 2010, Fiorina, 60, ran unsuccessfully as the Republican challenger for Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat in California. In addition to her work with Milstein, she currently provides advisory services to government agencies and for policy initiatives, and she speaks frequently for Republican causes, including tax and regulatory reform.

Fiorina spoke with me on Tuesday evening, about the kinds of changes she’d make to the regulatory environment and tax system, among other things, to assist small businesses. Following is an edited version of our conversation.

What are the biggest challenges facing entrepreneurs?

Carly Fiorina: Let’s start with some sobering facts to put this into context. Everyone knows Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, and everyone knows Facebook, but the truth is, as important and impactful as those companies are, they are not the real drivers of real job creation, and even innovation in this country. Small businesses employ half the people in this country and create 65 percent of the new jobs and they innovate at seven times the rate of big companies. So small business is the economic growth and innovation engine of the nation. And while many small businesses turn into huge businesses, such as Google or Microsoft, a whole bunch don’t.

We have a situation now where small businesses are suffering, and we have fewer starting and more failing than 40 years ago. Brookings reported last year that for the first time in U.S. history, we are now destroying more businesses than we are creating. If you look at our economy, big business is doing great, and big business is getting better, but small business is not. And if we can’t get this engine to go again, our economy won’t produce at its capacity, and the middle class will continue to be squeezed.

What are some of the solutions?

Fiorina: Unlocking capital is very important, and of course since the financial crisis, the surviving big banks have gotten bigger, but the community banking system is really struggling, and that means small businesses are struggling. It is community banks that provide most of the capital to small business, and [we need to] start unlocking small business loans again. We have got to get capital to them so they can form and thrive.

My personal view is that the Dodd Frank Act has curtailed capital to small business, and one reason why Dodd Frank needs to be reformed is because it making it better for big banks and worse for smaller banks, and this is crony capitalism, not entrepreneurialism.

What about reforming regulations?

Fiorina: One of the things we are really focused on [at Milstein] is how to provide a regulatory roadmap for small business, because it is virtually impossible for them to even know the rules and regulations they have to follow, much less navigate their way through them. And while we believe the regulatory complexity and complexity of the tax code have to be simplified, we think in the meantime, making it more transparent may make it more navigable and may hold elected officials more accountable.

How do you explain the success of Silicon Valley, which is in perhaps the most highly regulated state in the U.S.?

Fiorina: Technology is the least regulated industry in the world, and it is hyper-competitive. The regulations that tech companies in California have to adhere to are the same as everyone else. For example there are certain regulations around employment and taxation. And this is why so many Silicon Valley firms don’t have manufacturing in California anymore. But if you look at the industry as a whole, in California and elsewhere, it is the least regulated industry I can think of. As a result, it is clearly cause and effect. It is probably one of the very few industries in the world that year after year delivers more innovation and more value and lower prices, and has higher customer satisfaction. People are used to getting something newer and cooler and cheaper every year, and there are not a lot of other industries that operate that way.

Can entrepreneurship be taught?

Fiorina: A woman business owner once said to me, “You know we train people to be employees now, we don’t train them to be entrepreneurs,” and I think that is true. There should be programs in high school, like Junior Achievement, but also a curriculum in high school and community colleges could be really impactful. A lot of people coming from business school today are hitting the road thinking what they should follow is investment banking and consulting, and that has been trained. So entrepreneurship can be trained as well.

Intel recently announced it would spend $300 million to promote greater workplace diversity. How do gender and diversity factor into entrepreneurship needs?

Fiorina: Technology is still, as Intel’s announcement demonstrates, a male-dominated field and that is to technology’s detriment. On the other hand, if you look broadly in the nation, you’ll find women-owned businesses and minority-owned businesses are the fastest-growing in the economy. What is accurate to say is that the entrepreneurial spirit is an equal opportunity employer for sure, and entrepreneurship offers a great path for women and minorities to build a better life.

Are you hopeful that decline in entrepreneurship can be turned around?

Fiorina: I am hopeful in the sense that a lot of quality attention is being paid to this now, and the Milstein report is one example. On the other hand, what makes me realistic is that big government favors big business, and we have bigger and bigger government. Now if you have a big business–and I ran Hewlett-Packard and it is a huge business, and we don’t like business regulations, but we can deal with them–but the bigger government gets and the more complex regulations get, and the more complicated the tax code gets–and all of that is happening–the more difficult it will be for small business. And you see that in the data. Unless and until we are willing to reform government and cut back the complexity and regulations, and reform the tax code with small business in mind, not big business, we will not get at the root of the problem.

So is there any truth to the rumor you’re running for vice president?

Fiorina: No. I am not running for vice president. I am considering running for president.

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