I grew up the son of immigrant entrepreneurs. My mother and father came from Mexico to become U.S. citizens and small-business owners. My father worked his way from practically nothing to a seat at the White House, where he advised the president, and he helped mobilize a nation of Hispanics with dreams like his.
Years later, as administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, I traveled in normal and extraordinary circumstances to mom-and-pop stores and growing firms in every state. I saw first-hand that while many minorities retain cultural ideas and habits, and while women and veterans bring particular approaches to their companies, essentially all of us are the same. Small business wants more business. Often those entrepreneurs are too busy taking care of daily challenges to chart a course for growth and success.
In the government, I had an opportunity to initiate a series of public-private partnerships that produced events to open doors for small business. We were able to substantially increase the government and major corporation contracts for every imaginable product or service that small businesses offer.
I remember an executive at
, the first of the major corporations to partner in several important SBA programs, reminding everyone that his company started in a northern California garage. At the same time Compaq, which H-P acquired, began with an SBA guaranteed loan.
At the SBA we established a hall of fame to recognize and honor those who had started small and achieved remarkable growth and wore their success well. Many of the CEOs and other officers of those Hall of Fame companies are in my book,
The Engine of America
. I was able to focus on many of their experiences and ideas and relate them to the next generation of smaller firms.
Friends like Bob Lorsch -- a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur who lost it all in the Northridge earthquake, got SBA help and then built a personal fortune in business -- encouraged me to garner success stories and write a book. Easier said than done.
I asked several of my friends around the country if they thought small business owners would genuinely be interested in the ideas of those who had gone before them and made it. The answer was clear and convincing. If the ideas were sound and came from the right people, they would read and they would listen.
I was able to recruit Bob Wagman, a seasoned journalist who edited one of the World Almanacs and headed a Washington, D.C., news bureau, to research candidates for the book. Frankly, I think we could have done a three-volume set.
Instead, we chose the very best. We picked those men and women who had something to say that was not braggadocio, but motivational. We worked with the leaders who wanted to encourage a new generation to join them at the top. We talked of focus and priorities and reality checks and bold marketing ideas.
We went back to basics, and an a pattern emerged in which these remarkable leaders were able to package their experiences in a way I could write about and pass on to a nation of small business owners. That is how it began.
I did my homework and found that there were shelves full of business books both narrow in scope and general in approach. There were those by professors and those by economists. There were, of course, those by politicians professing leadership in business matters. They ranged from the "dummy" level of writing to the most complicated and intimidating manuscripts you could imagine.
I thought I found a gap -- a space where I could express my views and compile those of the men and women I so respect and who we can all learn from. Timing, as always, was everything.
Suddenly in our country, the biggest of companies are buying out or firing by the thousands, as they shut plants and offices in dozens of industries. At the same time, quietly, small business was seeding new jobs and new opportunities for millions of Americans. All of us sense that the American economic train was being pulled by a new engine, not one marked Fortune 500, but one marked small business.
I wanted to help fuel that new engine. I confess another reason for the book was to give me a good reason to travel the country and visit with small business owners and with SBA folks and SCORE volunteers and the Chamber of Commerce leaders who contribute so much.
Now that the book is a reality and the traveling has begun, I am even more committed and excited than I was when the idea was born. Perhaps that is another lesson for all entrepreneurs: If you have an idea, run with it and run hard. I did, and I am glad I did.
Hector V. Barreto is the former five-year administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, where he directed a $60 billion support system for American entrepreneurs. He is chairman of the Latino Coalition and chairman of Business Matchmaking, a nonprofit small-business procurement program. He was recently appointed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the state's Economic Development Commission.