My TV screen, like yours, has been filled with images of chaos and anger from the streets of Cairo. I think that many Americans feel a kinship with Egypt because we've heard about the country's history since childhood. Since the nation's small business history stretches thousands of years, I expect that many of the protesters are merchants and other small business owners.
In fact, I heard an interview last week with an Egyptian man whose micro sized business consisted of selling table cloths and other fabric items in a marketplace near the square. Until this disruption, he made enough money to support a wife and two daughters, one of whom is getting ready for college.
In another country closer to home, Cuba, we are also witnessing a wave of change. We can see the early results of their government program to lay off half a million government employees with the goodbye phrase, "You are now in business for yourself, pick up your license on the way out." I believe there is a brotherhood of entrepreneurial thinking that knows no boundaries, nor is it restricted to a particular political system.
Here in America where welfare programs and many pension plans are under threat these days, we too will be getting some fresh lessons in self reliance and the entrepreneurial way. Only a hermit could miss the fact that our newspapers are full of stories regarding states and cities in fiscal crisis all across America. I suspect that if more politicians had ever had to operate a business involving their own money, we wouldn't be in this mess, but that is beside the point. The fact is that many workers in the private and public sectors will be displaced and a lot of them won't know what to do next. As much as I believe in the benefits of small business, I know that owning and operating a business is not for everyone. However, learning to think like a business owner may be the key to getting another job for those people.
In a small Cuban town near Havana, Marisela Alvarez says that she is now feeling more fortunate than she has in many years. In a New York Times interview she reveled her new independence since she opened a small café in front of her house. Ms. Alvarez said, "When you sit down at the end of the day and look at how much you have made, you feel satisfied." All of this is new for Cubans, many of whom have relied on being government employees for decades since the Castro revolution. Who ever thought their socialist leaders would change their minds about simple capitalism or stumble into an economic morass.
In Egypt, just as in the United States, big business has been heralded as the key to the country's economic stability and growth. In the 20th Century large scale companies (over 500 employees) that mass produced goods and services became the symbols of modern business. However Egypt's private sector economy seemed to be locked in a time warp, dominated by small businesses: tailors, metal workers, potters and farmers. They have a long list of business categories that rarely employ more than 10 people. They often have fewer than four employees and even the protests haven't stopped most from doing business. They are part of the community fabric that will outlive the current government.
While we aren't facing the chaos that recently enveloped Cairo or the completely misshapen finances of Cuba, something more forceful than a just a gentle breeze is beginning to reshape the American perception of small business. For several years we've seen the giant mother ships of manufacturing throwing people overboard to keep the enterprise aloft. Our governments at all levels have constructed expensive labyrinths of programs without sound and sustainable financial footings and the piper is now calling for payment. Even they are shedding employees. What used to be is no longer, and today's realities point to a plethora of challenges. It is increasingly obvious that the person you meet in the mirror each morning had better have a personal marketing plan, very much like a well-run business.
Those enterprising Cubans are taking the government's offer to work for themselves seriously. Many are renting out houses, and selling things from their front yards. Some are making furniture and others are hustling homemade wine! According to the Cuban labor federation, the government is laying off around 500,000 of about 4.3 million state workers by the middle of this year. They are expected to issue several hundred thousand new business licenses to people tentatively wanting to join the entrepreneurial brotherhood. It was 42 years ago that Fidel Castro nationalized all enterprises in the island nation. South Florida in particular became the catch basin for Cuba's fleeing entrepreneurial class at that time. Brother Castro seems to now realize that it will be small business that helps rebuild their faltering economy.
Whether in Cairo, Georgia or Cairo, Egypt, there is a virtual brotherhood of entrepreneurs. Ambitious people in Havana, Illinois or the Cuban capitol are looking for the same sense of satisfaction, accomplishment and freedom. History tells us that politicians of every party and language eventually get it all wrong. Remember, our founding fathers worked for themselves and worked on the government, not the reverse. Just like sharks, cockroaches and Cher, the spirit of enterprise is a forever thing. There have always been small business enterprises to hold families and communities together. Our timeless, enduring and even biblical brotherhood will prevail and sustain our forward progress.