"Yankee ingenuity" refers to the self-reliance of early New Englanders who improvised and adapted to overcome challenges from the region's harsh winters and poor soil. It also refers to a Connecticut penchant for inventiveness that resulted in the dictionary, public library, helicopter, color TV and artificial heart.
Today, Yankee ingenuity is epitomized by Hartford's small-business owners and their ability to persevere in the face of another harsh environment: Connecticut's economy.
Although the U.S. Commerce Department ranked Connecticut last in the nation in economic growth, Hartford small businesses are still hiring. In fact, 44 percent of them report hiring in the past 12 months, compared with 36 percent nationally, according to The Hartford's third annual Small Business Success Study, one of the most comprehensive of its kind.
This is not to suggest that local business owners are optimistic about the economy. To the contrary, our survey found that Metro Hartford small-business owners are more pessimistic about the local economy than their peers nationally. In addition, 74 percent describe themselves as conservative in their risk-taking, and nine in 10 say the biggest risk to their business is slow economic growth.
This is troubling news since small businesses are the backbone of our nation, employ half of the private workforce and create three out of every four new jobs.
Conservative risk-taking aside, Hartford's small-business owners are doing their best to make the most of a difficult situation, persevering to keep their doors open.
The Hartford found that seven in 10 owners view themselves as "moderately to extremely" successful. Even more define success as doing something they feel "passionate about or enjoy," ahead of making enough money to have a comfortable life style or more free time. Sixty-five percent said they would not trade owning a business to work for someone else, even for the same level of success.
Talk about passion. Local small-business owners are committed to living the American Dream, no matter how difficult the economic climate. They report that they are busy satisfying customers, improving the bottom line, and taking care of their employees.
Given the high failure rate of startups, launching a small business and hiring employees are risky. So what can we do to create an environment where entrepreneurship is encouraged, mentored, and celebrated?
One way is to support more partnerships between the private and public sectors. Earlier this year, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy reported that the state's Small Business Express Program had funded nearly 600 applications totaling more than $80 million in grants and matching loans to Connecticut companies with 100 or fewer employees, since its creation in October 2011. The program is projected to create and retain more than 7,600 jobs.
Hartford is also helping by offering subsidies to cover operating expenses for small businesses that fill empty downtown storefronts.
Big companies can do their part by buying from small businesses whenever possible and supporting neighborhood entrepreneurs. The Hartford, for instance, is helping renovate retail and office space for small businesses as part of its plan to revitalize the Asylum Hill neighborhood. Our teammates often organize "cash mobs" (groups of people who assemble at a business to make purchases) as a way of thanking The Hartford's customers.
The responsibility for creating an environment that better supports small business is a shared one. We all need to do more to encourage small-business owners to continue to innovate, grow, and pursue their dreams. Hartford's self-reliant small-business owners have already demonstrated that they have the gumption and ingenuity to persevere in the toughest of economic conditions. Imagine what they might accomplish with more focused and proactive support.
Liam E. McGee is chairman, president and CEO of The Hartford.