Michael Nutter, eight-year veteran mayor of Philadelphia, will depart office in January having cemented his legacy as a champion of the city's small businesses.
During his tenure as a City Council member, he helped pass a preferential bidding program for city projects, giving Philadelphia-based businesses an opportunity to compete with bigger, non-local construction firms. After he took office as mayor in 2008, Nutter expanded his efforts through several other initiatives, including StartUp PHL, which connects startups with seasoned investors.
In partnership with the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, we talked to Mayor Nutter about his commitment to local entrepreneurs and his plans for after his second term. He weighed in on his time as mayor, the challenges he’s faced and what Mayor-elect Jim Kenney needs to do to continue Philadelphia’s success.
HP: You’ve always had an interest in helping out small businesses. Where does this commitment come from?
It's a combination of my personal and professional experience. When I was 13, I had the opportunity to work in a local neighborhood pharmacy. … I worked there for six years, through my freshman year in college, and seeing this family [who owned it] and understanding what was involved in running, maintaining and operating a small business made a lifelong impression on me.
The Great Recession had an impact on all businesses -- small, medium and large, neighborhood-based and corporate entities, big companies in town. People lost their jobs, companies closed, tax revenues were down, unemployment was significantly up and there was a significant amount of hardship for people. As someone who's had a job since the age of 13, I know what it means to have a job and the dignity of work, and you don't have jobs unless you have businesses, and that's really where it comes from.
HP: Where do you look for inspiration to help grow small businesses?
I'm a firm believer in not reinventing the wheel. Many of the challenges, issues, and problems that we face here in Philadelphia have already been faced by other folks who were constantly looking for new and different ideas from other places. In addition to borrowing the idea of preferential bidding from Los Angeles, we borrowed an idea from New York City, when Mayor Bloomberg was in office, which led to the creation of StartUP PHL, which provides early-stage investments for small startups based in Philadelphia.
We offer a variety of programs and services through our commerce department. We're one of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses initiative cities, which has been very helpful to our established business community, many of which are small. … They're getting great business advice and strategy. We've had eight cohorts go through [the 10,000 Small Businesses program, with] a graduation rate of 99 percent. We've partnered with Kiva so that even smaller businesses have access to microloans and are able to seek capital.
We also came up with our own ideas, such as changing the tax policy for new businesses where if you start a company and employ three or more employees in the first year, and add at least another three in the second year, you pay no business taxes to Philadelphia for two years. We've also eliminated fees and certain licenses that we thought were redundant or just costly to businesses. We’re actively promoting business-to-business activity as well as encouraging businesses to open a gateway office in Philadelphia.
HP: What are the biggest challenges for Philadelphia in the coming years?
There's no question that the funding of public education, the performance of our students and their educational outcomes are investments that need to be made. If we don't fund education, unfortunately we'll get a continuation of the many challenges that already exist: high levels of poverty, [and] less opportunity to get a job and to be a full participant in the work force. We have had the largest percentage increase of millennial population of any major city in the United States, which is a great thing, but on the other hand, we have to ... take action to upgrade our public education system, because those millennials will start having children and they’ll begin thinking about where they're going to send their kids to school.
HP: What’s the “next big thing” for Philadelphia businesses?
The millennial population is highly mobile; we need to continue to ensure that not only are there great places for their kids to go to school but also [that we] maintain a vibrancy and a liveliness, a good quality of life here in our city. I think we're going to see a continued expansion and growth in our neighborhoods' commercial corridors, especially as our immigrant population continues to grow as well.
Our local companies will continue to pursue talent, and they have a great pool of candidates to choose from -- as we've experienced almost a doubling of millennials who decide to stay in Philadelphia after coming to attend college here. Currently that number is about 48, 49 percent. These young people are also the ones who are the innovators, the startups, the makers, and they're creating opportunities here. I think for the years and decades to come … the next big thing is the continued growth and revitalization of many neighborhoods and commercial corridors where you have business activity on the corridor literally surrounded by residential populations.
HP: As an outgoing mayor who has served two terms as mayor of Philadelphia, what’s next for you?
I'm going to stay actively engaged and involved in the life of the city. ... I have my passions about reducing violence in communities of color, between young men and boys of color. I have my passion about education and educational attainment and workforce development [and] training programs.
HP: What advice would you give your successor?
Be clear with your agenda. Listen to as many people who are giving you good advice as you can, but ultimately this is a job about making decisions. The stronger your passions, the stronger your decision-making. ... Always do what you think is in the best interest of our diverse citizenry. You cannot make everyone happy, and if you try, you won't accomplish very much. There are times you need to be bold, and leadership can be a lonely place to sit, but it's necessary, it's needed, and communicating with the public what you're doing, why you're doing it, what you think the outcomes will be and how it's going to make life better for many people in our city is the best advice that I can give.
Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses provides entrepreneurs with a practical business education, business support services, and access to capital. In Philadelphia, over 250 small business owners have been served since the program came to the city.