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Entrepreneurs and Optimism

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Read the papers and watch the news these days and the drumbeat of seriously bad economic news keeps rolling on.

An recent event at the Chicago Hilton and Towers reminded me that behind the macro trends is a very simple truth: the economy is made up of an enormous number of very small transactions. Each person's job, each person's mortgage, each business that makes a sale or purchase, each corporation that decides to retain or release employees is part of all that when added together makes up the economy and the direction that it moves.

In saying this I am fully aware that a lot of bad and unusual things have happened in the finance sector of the economy. That is why good policy, vigorous oversight, and transparency are so important. Right now, though, I'm thinking about all those small transactions.

At the Hilton and Towers, the Chicago Area Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame welcomed 25 new members. These are people like Edward Miller, who founded the $34 million global contract manufacturing company Prince Industries, and Colleen Kramer, who grew Evergreen Supply Company from a home-based business started by her mother into a company with $17 million in annual sales.

The Hall of Fame is housed at the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Business Administration, which is itself one of the national centers for entrepreneurship education. Gerald Hills, the Coleman Foundation Professor of Entrepreneurship at UIC, who is retiring, received a standing ovation for his role in starting the focus on entrepreneurship at UIC more than 25 years ago.

A Lifetime Achievement Award went to Doris Christopher, who started her business, The Pampered Chef, in her suburban Chicago home, struck a nerve in a nation full of self-starters and she had the pleasure of seeing her firm bought by Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway in 1971. These days The Pampered Chef finds itself at the intersection of renewed interest in home based business and a population with a renewed interest in eating at home. Opportunity.

This was a roomful of people who have not given up. It was a gathering of optimists. There was plenty of conversation about what the government should be doing to improve the business climate at the grassroots level. The topics were familiar--ease the burden of health care; improve access to short term credit and loan facilities; support investment through tax credits. Keep it all simple so people other than accountants can be winners.

There was even an undercurrent of conversation about what something like the Olympic bid might mean to the local economy. The amount of business to be done in connection with the Olympics would be, well, herculean. The region's entrepreneurs are well aware of it and ready to be involved. It's business.

But mostly the conversation was about the stuff of day-to-day enterprise. Entrepreneurs have a way of looking at the world that is highly resilient. It's probably rooted in the well-known fact that a lot of business startups go through failure on the way to success. So entrepreneurs don't dwell on what's going wrong. They ask themselves where opportunity might lie and then go after it.

We need more moments like the one at UIC's Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame. We all know the big problems facing the economy. It is important to remember that it is the small steps, added together, that will move us out of this mess.