She served two elected terms on the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and was appointed by President Clinton to the CDFI Advisory Board in the Department of the Treasury, so it’s no surprise that Connie Evans brings the same brio and precision to her current job.
Connie is the President and CEO of the Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO), the national nonprofit organization and business trade association representing the U.S. microbusiness development industry. AEO has more than 400 member and partner organizations that provide training, technical assistance and resources to entrepreneurs across the United States.
Evans started her career in community mental health as a master-level psychologist until deciding to become the Project Director for the first resident-managed public housing site in Chicago. With the latter position, she was able to help low-income women develop business skills. Connie has spent her entire career trying to improve health and life options for disadvantaged people. GGF was humbled to chat with this strategist, activist, social entrepreneur, and visionary leader.
How can the US achieve full employment?
AEO released a report last year that demonstrates if one in three microbusinesses (a business with five or fewer employees) hires one employee, the country will have full employment. Microbusiness has the power to bring an end to joblessness but there’s quite a bit of work that’s needed to make that happen. We need more programs and policies that support getting capital and important business support services to these business owners that allow them to develop, grow, and hire. Commercial financial institutions find it costly to make a loan under $250,000 so it’s very rare that they will do that. When business owners are looking for capital, they don’t meet the qualifications for accessing a loan. We have to find products that fit within the needs of microbusiness- a loan that would be at least $50,000 but below $250,000.
Does technology create unemployment?
As the country goes through different cycles, we moved from a period of high manufacturing to an information age. There are industry sectors where technology has replaced individual workers but there are still new types of jobs being created. There is clearly a reality in terms of a skills mismatch for some job seekers, but that still leaves the opportunity to create a job with the existing skill base that you have and start your own business. Our country needs to focus on supporting lifelong learning and give opportunities for everyone to increase their skills.
How does your past experience as a master-level psychologist affect your job at AEO?
It has given me a framework to recognize that specific emotions arise when people are making decisions about their money and how to care for their family. I grew up as a product of a self-employed mother of four. My mother ran a catering business and put four kids through college. I don’t think people come to business ownership lightly. There’s so much focused on your skills and your ability that it puts the individual’s confidence on the line. For example, women have difficulty pricing their products. They tend to undervalue their own value or what they produce. They may have more difficulty in asking customers to pay. All of those things tie into self-image, sense of confidence, and self esteem. Everyone is so focused on the issues of access to capital but they forget that business owners also need connections and confidence. Good programming takes into account that confidence is just as important as raising capital. AEO has member organizations in every state in the country and those programs are excellent at providing that support.
What are your concerns for the Presidential election and the future of the JOBS act?
Regardless of who wins, I think it’s critically important that the President recognizes the power of microbusiness for creating jobs and moving people out of chronic unemployment. Microbusinesses have a dramatic impact on the economy, whether you’re talking about direct job creation (32 million jobs created), or induced and indirect job creation (which adds 15 million jobs). The President-elect will need to be inclusive of microbusiness as he proposes policies. Candidates often talk about small business as a monolithic/one-size opportunity. The reality in America is that the majority of businesses are microbusinesses, so it’s critical for politicians to recognize the economic contribution they make.
What does the term “financial literacy” mean to you?
Financial literacy means that individuals have the information and content knowledge on how to manage their finances. They know how money works in their lives, business, and the economy. I think when we’re talking about financial literacy we also need to couple that with financial capability. You can have information and content but you still need the capacity to put that content to work for your business. As important as financial literacy is, we have to go a step further to empower individuals to use the content knowledge. Some of the things we are seeing now, such as cell phone apps, help people gain greater financial capability.
Have you ever felt poor? Have you ever felt rich? Describe those feelings.
Many years ago my sister and I got into an argument on whether we were poor. I went to private school and my mother owned her own home, so I grew up thinking and believing that I had everything I needed and wanted. I didn’t have a concept of being poor. My sisters who are older and lived in the same household may have had a different experience because of time- my mother was a widow and our family economics changed and improved. I don’t know what I thought poor was, but now as an adult I understand that “poor” and “rich” are not the right ways to think of our personal financial situation. Think of wealth. Are you building assets?
When I was seven or eight years old, I got angry with my siblings and said I would run away from home. I grabbed my piggy bank and walked to my grandmother’s house. Even though I was so young, I knew to grab my money! The issue has always been wealth building. How do we begin to build assets? It goes back to financial literacy. Income is important, but saving a portion of that income is what’s really important.