We Need an Entrepreneurial Presidency to Support Entrepreneurs

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An open letter to the White House on behalf of the growing independent workforce of freelancers and start-ups

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Pete Souza/White House Flickr

Dear President Obama,

We're entering a new industrial era where one in three workers is now "independent" - freelancer, temp, consultant - and that number is only growing. The era of the 9-to-5 job is closing. We've entered a "gig economy."

Follow the lead of these 42 million entrepreneurs and innovate for this new economy. It's time for the country to enter the "Age of the Entrepreneurial Presidency."

The first step would be to introduce a measure of independent organization to your team. We need to evolve the structure of government away from silos and toward teams. Today's large government agencies are more suited to the manufacturing era than today's short-term, flexible, gig-based workforce. You can see that reflected all over DC in the hulking, factory-style buildings where our government agencies are housed.

We need to rethink not only the function of government, but its form. A new, cross-agency, nimble team is the only way to serve our new networked economy - a team with the sole mandate of getting Americans working.

The simple truth is that we can't count on Congress to lead us out of this economic mess. But, Mr. President, you could make a big difference by transforming your Executive Branch so it works for today's workers.

In the business and engineering worlds, there is something called a "skunk works" team: an independent group of innovators inside a larger organization that spark change. It should be tight and mighty - just 7 to 15 empowered, smart voices. And it should have only one goal: to look at the fungible money in the Executive Branch and direct it where it can do the most good for 21st century workers.

You've already created a solid model in the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a first-of-its-kind effort bringing together the EPA, HUD, and the Department of Transportation to coordinate federal community planning efforts.

You can bring that same clarity to our national economic crisis - if we stop retreating to "that's how it's always been done" inside our huge, factory-style government buildings.

So, who's on your "skunk works" team? Start with representatives from Labor (Secretary Hilda Solis), Treasury (Assistant Secretary for Financial Institutions Cyrus Amir-Mokri), and the Small Business Administration (Administrator Karen Gordon Mills). Each of them should bring two or three of their favorite eggheads - labor economists, MBAs, banking experts - and get to work.

When they meet, I think they'll find there are a few relatively easy ways the government can reorient itself to serve the way Americans actually work today:

· Conduct a robust and profound count of the new workforce. The last time the federal government even counted "independent workers" was 2005. A lot has changed since then in technology and the economy. We need to know what today's workforce looks like to build tomorrow's economy.

· Set up a $100 million microloan fund to give innovative small businesses the jumpstart they need. Micro-businesses - often created and run by independent workers - will incubate many of tomorrow's over-the-horizon innovations. But they're struggling to get early loans to help get them up and running. A microloan program that boosts these innovators - with preference given to those promoting a social good - would kick-start promising, sustainable business models.

· Create forums to listen to and learn from independent workers. You should convene regular meetings (online and in person) of micro-entrepreneurs and independent workers to hear their successes, challenges, and frustrations. Tech giant IBM's turnaround has been traced to their 2003 online "Values Jam", which empowered its 319,000 employees to openly critique and reconstruct the corporate culture. Listen. Learn. Support their growth. Then get out of the way so they can boost the economy.

These ideas, of course, are only a start. But by heeding the lessons of America's 42 million entrepreneurs, Mr. President, you can be a pioneer and start remaking our creaky 20th century economy into one that embraces and empowers the reality of 21st century work-life.

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Sara Horowitz is the founder of Freelancers Union, a nonprofit organization representing the interests and concerns of the independent workforce.

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