The main takeaway from this post is that FIELD at the Aspen Institute is now the Business Ownership Initiative. The main reason for the change is simply clarity. But the name change is also an opportunity to reflect on the work that we do, how that work has changed and our commitment to the mission of expanding the role that business ownership plays in creating economic opportunity.
Back in 1992 the Aspen Institute began working to promote business ownership among low- and moderate-income Americans, people who had largely been cut off from the opportunity to start and own a business. The thinking back then, as the asset-building movement was just emerging, was that business ownership was a key path toward building wealth in the current generation and creating opportunity for future generations. Small business in general was seen as a key driver of household income, job creation, and the American economy as a whole. In 1994 we joined with others at the Institute to create the Economic Opportunities Program, bringing together our shared commitment and approaches to enabling low- and moderate-income people in the US to connect to and thrive in our economy.
In 1998, we launched FIELD to boost the nascent, but growing, group of organizations focused on microenterprise development in the United States. Over the last 20 years we’ve worked in a variety of ways to advance innovation and effectiveness in programs that aim to increase the number of households that have access to business ownership as a path to boosting income and wealth, with a focus on those who face the greatest barriers to starting and growing firms: including entrepreneurs of color, people living with criminal histories, and opportunity youth.
Along the way, we’ve learned a great deal working with funders, program leaders, policymakers, and researchers. We’ve learned that there are many different kinds of small businesses, in part because there are many different motivations for starting a small business. We’ve learned there are different ways of owning and investing in small businesses that produce different outcomes for owners, employees, and communities. We’ve learned about the variety of different barriers to business ownership and the strategies necessary to address those barriers.
Our commitment to boosting business ownership remains the same, but our understanding of how to support business ownership, and how business ownership supports households has grown tremendously. Along with that understanding, the field as a whole and our work has evolved.
The reason we’re changing our name is to better reflect all of what we do and why we do it. Today, when we think about creating economic opportunity, we think of three different types of business ownership:
- Self-Employment and Stable Small Businesses: Call them microbusinesses, freelancers, “mom and pop,” or “main street” firms, these firms are created to fill a local gap when the job market and local communities are not producing the kinds of jobs and businesses that many people in the US need. Whether because of discrimination or other barriers, low pay, lack of benefits, or flexibility, there are many people in low-income communities who create their own job, or start a business to serve their own community, because no one else has or will. These businesses are often not highly profitable and don’t grow that large. That’s OK—they are still the vast majority of businesses in the US and are crucially important for generating income and opportunity in many communities, and often are a critical source of important services those communities need.
- Growth Businesses: These are businesses that are started with the intention of growing. Some of these firms grow more organically; others receive significant amounts of external financing. Organic growth firms are the primary contributor to business revenues and payroll in communities across our country but can be unstable if they cannot master the inevitable challenges to their cash flow. They can often create a great deal of wealth for their founders (even if they are not tech companies). However, low- and moderate-income entrepreneurs are often shut out of the networks and financing needed to start such businesses despite the quality of their ideas and their drive.
- Employee-Owned Businesses: These can be worker cooperatives or large, diversified corporations that offer broad-based employee share ownership and profit-sharing plans to their workers. They can be new businesses or older businesses that have converted to employee ownership. These businesses can spread wealth much more broadly in communities as well as boosting income and job quality for employees.
Each of these types of business is an important path to income, wealth, and opportunity. Although they have important commonalities, they require different types of support, different strategies, different funding, etc.
We are changing our name to reflect that our work covers all these types of business ownership, and that we believe each is important and requires support. But while our name is changing, the types of work we do and way we do it won’t. We will continue to conduct applied research into critical issues facing micro and small businesses, we will continue and expand our work with high-performing microlenders through our Microfinance Impact Collaborative, we will continue to help organizations use data to document the outcomes of their work, and we will continue our work with the Responsible Business Lending Coalition. We will also be expanding our efforts to advance policy and practices that expand employee share ownership, partnering with other organizations doing vital work in that area. We will continue and deepen our collaboration with our colleagues in the Economic Opportunities Program.
The FIELD brand will not be fully going away either – we are deeply proud of the body of work we have done over the past two decades, and our commitment to building the microenterprise field remains strong. Most importantly, our deep belief in the entrepreneurial potential of low-income people, and that expanding business ownership is critical in addressing income and wealth inequality and the racial wealth gap is unwavering. We look forward to continuing to work with our many partners – and with new ones who share our mission and commitment – on this essential issue.
Tweet Over the last two decades, the Aspen Institute Business Ownership Initiative @Aspen_BOI (formerly FIELD) has worked to promote business ownership as a path to boosting income and wealth. Learn about their work – past, present, and future.
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