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More women are becoming entrepreneurs ... how does N.J. keep them? At One World conference, panelists describe how state can focus on this demographic

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State power players (from left) Gail Marquis, Alfa Demmellash, Daryl Rand, Michele Siekerka, Sue Henderson and Michele Brown discussed what New Jersey needs to do to keep female entrepreneurs in the state.
State power players (from left) Gail Marquis, Alfa Demmellash, Daryl Rand, Michele Siekerka, Sue Henderson and Michele Brown discussed what New Jersey needs to do to keep female entrepreneurs in the state. - ()

Gail Marquis had some good news — and some bad — to share with the esteemed panel she moderated at the One World conference, held at New Jersey City University last week, that focused on empowering women for the global conversation.

“Women have stepped up since the recession, creating 11.3 million women-owned businesses in the U.S. that employ nearly 9 million people and generate more than $1.6 trillion in revenue,” Marquis, director of community outreach, director of the business development incubator and the regional director of the small business development center at the New Jersey City University School of Business, said. “These women-owned firms represented a 45 percent increase in jobs, compared to just 9 percent among all businesses.”

The 2016 Women Owned Businesses Executive Report she cited also found that women of color owned 78 percent of women-owned firms created between 2007 and 2016.

“There are now 1.9 million African-American women-owned firms, employing more than 375,000 and generating $51.4 billion in revenues; 1.9 million Latina-owned firms, employing more than 550,000 and generating $97 billion in revenues; and more than 922,000 Asian-American women-owned firms, employing nearly 965,000, and generating more than $170 billion in revenues,” Marquis said.

Still, Marquis added, women are among those choosing to leave New Jersey to live and start their businesses elsewhere. 

“Is it simply about property tax?” Marquis asked the panel. Or, she asked, can the government, public and private sectors work together to get people to stay and keep them employed? And, how might the business community partner with aspiring entrepreneurs in order to fill some gaps?

Michele Brown, CEO and president of Choose New Jersey, the privately funded arm of the state’s economic development team in Princeton, started by explaining how her organization continues to attract new business here.

“In essence, what we do is market the state of New Jersey around the country and around the world as a good place to start and grow a business,” she said.

A top priority for Choose New Jersey, Brown added, has been figuring out how to attract businesses specifically to urban areas of New Jersey.

“If you want to form a business in Sussex County, the state government will help you — but if you want to open a business in Jersey City, Paterson, Atlantic City, Camden, the state will help you a lot,” Brown said. “That is where we want our businesses to grow, because that is where the workforce is and where we need the state to spend its resources.”

Pairing organizations with similar missions that can collaborate for the greater good is key, Brown said.

“For example, the organization I run is one of four partners geared toward economic development in the state,” Brown said. “We partner with the state’s Economic Development Agency in its administration of (business development) programs; we partner with the secretary of higher education, Rochelle Hendricks, to (help facilitate) research collaboration opportunities between New Jersey’s universities and businesses around the world; and we partner with the Business Action Center, which works within the secretary of state’s office as a liaison between business and state government.”

Siekerka: We need to rethink state funding of education

New Jersey needs to rethink the delivery and funding of education in the state.

So said Michele Siekerka, CEO and president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, at the recent One World conference, held at New Jersey City University last week, that focused on empowering women for the global conversation.

Siekerka, in a panel discussion, said she and her team have been heavily focused on the collaboration between elementary and high schools and all post-secondary institutions.

“Where we are lacking most is in traditional workforce development skills, in skilled and trade labor,” she said. “For example, we have nearly 11,000 manufacturing facilities in the state of New Jersey, all using technology, and they cannot hire because there is not a workforce to draw from. But one can actually afford to live, work and play in the state of New Jersey with one of these jobs.

“We need to introduce tomorrow’s workforce to the fact that these are well-paying, desirable jobs in clean technology. Because we know too many students who are sent to traditional four-year colleges without being ready for it, whether academically or maturity-wise, that fall out of the system, take on debt without a job, lose their confidence and spend years they could have spent in a career rebuilding and rebranding themselves.

“If you graduate and are not quite ready for the traditional four-year institution, go get a certification from one of our vocational schools or community colleges that says you now know how to put widgets together. When you have that piece of paper, I can then walk you into one of our companies and they will hire you tomorrow. And then, if our academic institutions continue to stack credentials, eventually that student will be able to put together the widget, operate the processing machine, become the supervisor, the manager and get their bachelor’s and master’s degrees all before they are 30 years old.”

It takes massive collaboration between government, academic institutions and businesses to make this happen, Siekerka said. But it must be done.

“We take the owners of our manufacturing companies, walk them to our academic providers at community colleges, have them write the curriculum together for certification programs, and then walk those students right into jobs, which is great workforce development,” she said. “But, now, we need to pay attention to how we deliver such education based on the individuality of each student.”

Siekerka said she realizes that is easier said than done.

“I served on the school board in Robbinsville for more than 10 years and negotiated six labor contracts,” she said. “In Robbinsville, an affluent district with a lot of wealth, nearly 94 percent of our funding comes from local property taxes. That means for every $100, the state gives us about a dollar. So, we said, why don’t we tell the state to keep their dollar so we don’t have to follow their rules? Oh, but you know what, we have accreditation which means we have to follow the rules when it comes to the delivery of K through 12 education.”

The other proposal residents like to bring up, Siekerka said, is adjusting property taxes through shared services.

“Everyone likes to talk about how easy it is to get municipalities to come together, but it’s a challenge,” she said. “In Robbinsville, it was not our first decision to build our brand new high school. We wanted to join up with another community and create a regional school district. But the one district who came on the dance floor with us to consider that option, if we had gone forward with them, Robbinsville residents would have paid two-thirds of the tax for the first 10 years of funding that high school because our tax rates were so off.

“We need policy to correct things like that. … Right now, the good news is that everyone is talking about school funding. The bad news is that our three leading policy makers in New Jersey each have their own thoughts on it.

“Now is the time for them to come together to bring forward some solutions based upon all of the great input they’ve received over time.”

The expansion of Amazon in New Jersey, Brown said, is a perfect example of what can happen when organizations work together to tackle workforce issues.

“Five years ago, Amazon had zero physical presence in the state of New Jersey,” Brown said. “When they built their first facility in Robbinsville, they wanted to hire 2,000 workers and an additional 1,000 over the holidays. But the people going to work there needed mass transportation — so we worked together to make sure that there was bus service that could provide transportation from the nearest train station directly to their facility.

“That (facility) was so successful that they have since announced additional facilities in New Jersey — by the end of this year, they will employ more than 13,000 and have more than 10 physical distribution facilities here.”

The fact that Amazon is a large, heavily automated company may actually help to encourage more entrepreneurship in the state of New Jersey, Alfa Demmellash, co-founder and CEO of Rising Tide Capital, a nonprofit micro-enterprise development organization in Jersey City, said.

“There is tremendous innovation around automation — but we are there to help make sure that the thousands of employees that may be displaced by such technology will know what to do next.

“One of the things that we have done in Jersey City is to create a model, a local economy working group, that looks at how we can define what participation and economic opportunity looks like for the future for our state. We talk to our business leaders and our investors and we say, ‘We love all of this innovation, but we cannot be disconnected from the greater good. We want to grow together and maximize participation, so, how is your business employing policies and exercising leadership to make sure that there will be continued stability in homes?’

Speakers addressed empowering women in a globalized economy at New Jersey City University at the One World forum May 17-19, produced by Harrison Rand.
Speakers addressed empowering women in a globalized economy at New Jersey City University at the One World forum May 17-19, produced by Harrison Rand. - ()

“It’s meeting people halfway and getting our public and private sector to participate as anchors in creating pipelines and collaboration.”

As larger companies continue to innovate, they may discover gaps and challenges that may require outsourced services.

“Many of our entrepreneurs are simply responding to a demand or a need that they see,” Demmellash said. “They are asking what their role can be in solving problems that arise.”

Tremendous growth in the shared economy, Demmellash added, also has led to an increase in entrepreneurship.

“What does it take for a family in this state to be able to provide for their kids while also growing their wealth and assets for future sustainability and resilience?” she said. “There is a lot of insecurity amongst those in that workforce right now, and they are turning to entrepreneurship as a way to increase their income on a daily basis.

“Nearly 70 percent of the people who come to us already are working in a job while starting their business on nights and on weekends. The entrepreneurial journey today is a much more widely shared aspiration, and by and large, women want to lead and create in that way.”

Demmellash and her co-founder, Alex Forrester, created Rising Tide Capital in 2004 to address this growing desire.

“When we graduated from college and came to New Jersey, we looked at this state, saw all of its opportunity and said, ‘How can we get this rising tide to lift all boats?’” Demmellash said. “There were many stories of struggling urban areas and inner-city communities that, too, could see opportunity here, but for whatever historical or economic reasons, were not able to fully participate.

“So, we asked, how could we help build a community that is able to grow inclusively? We looked at entrepreneurship as a primary vehicle for which this could happen.”

Demmellash said there already were a lot of classes, events and panels focused on writing business plans or getting access to capital, but they were further along than where many people were finding themselves.

“If someone did not come from an entrepreneurial family, or they did not have access to higher education or if they were a single parent who had been out of the workforce, they often believed they had to create everything from scratch,” Demmellash said. “There wasn’t anywhere for someone to go and get business management education and exposure to the experience of what it’s like to pull something together from ideation all the way through building systems and collaborating with others to grow.

“So we developed a highly experiential, 12-week business academy, funded by philanthropic partners from around the world, that brought people from all different backgrounds together.”

Today, on average, a new business is formed every three days at Rising Tide Capital in Jersey City and in five inner cities of northern New Jersey.

“We are now licensing our systems as a social franchise to other communities,” Demmellash said.

Michele Siekerka, CEO and president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, closed out the panel by acting as the last piece of the puzzle.

“We represent about 20,000 businesses across the state of New Jersey and more than 1 million jobs,” Siekerka said. “Michele Brown attracts them; Alfa helps to incubate and promote them; and my job is to make sure that they can be sustained here. Because if we do not have a business-friendly climate in which businesses can form, grow and create jobs, we will not be successful.”

Siekerka touted New Jersey’s historically top-ranked ports, highway and rail systems, the state’s incredible diversity and the fact that there are more research scientists and doctors per square mile here than anywhere else in the country.

“If you take all of those tremendous assets and talk about a place where you can live, work and play, that does it for me,” she said. “But all of those great assets come at a high cost and, over time, that cost for New Jerseyans has become prohibitive.

“We know this because, while Michele has been bringing business in, many others have been leaving out the back door. We have a significant outmigration problem in the state of New Jersey. Over the last decade, we have lost almost $21 billion in net adjusted gross income from the state of New Jersey.”

For business owners, Siekerka said, the costs of regulation, high payroll taxes and paying the “lion’s share” of property taxes have contributed to the issue.

“While our K through 12 education in New Jersey is often ranked best in class in the nation, it comes at a very high price tag called our property taxes,” Siekerka said. “And when we educate our kids at the cost of $19,000 per pupil per year times 13 years, and they graduate from high school and move on to traditional four-year higher education institutions, over 56 percent of them are not doing it in the state of New Jersey.

“Where, then, is the return on such a huge investment?

“The highest population of people in the country choosing to live elsewhere is millennials in New Jersey ages 18 to 34. That’s the future workforce for the businesses we are attracting. And where are they going when they leave New Jersey? The No. 1 and No. 2 outmigration states for New Jersey are our borders, Pennsylvania and New York. The taxes there are more favorable to individuals and for businesses.

“When we are not competitive with New York, we have to really stop and think about that.”

Siekerka said New Jersey’s future workforce is either leaving or lingering.

“We also rank No. 1 in the nation for millennials living at home with their parents,” she said. “It’s all driven by affordability.

“My job and my team at the NJBIA is to ensure that we can cultivate the right climate to keep our businesses and our residents that buy their services and goods here.”

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