For any entrepreneur, turning a good idea into a business is hard work. But thankfully, small businesses have Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez fighting for them in Congress. As Chairwoman of the Small Business Committee, Congresswoman Velazquez is working to ensure that those who want to create businesses—including women, have every tool at their disposal. On this episode, the Congresswoman describes her historic path to Washington, her commitment to a level playing field, and her hopes for a democratic and inclusive digital future.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Welcome to Broadband Conversations. I'm Jessica Rosenworcel and I'm a member of the Federal Communications Commission.
And this is the podcast where I get to talk to leading women from across the technology, innovation and media industries. You get to hear what they're working on, what's on their minds and what they think is the next big thing.
And right now in Washington the weather has gotten cold. And when the weather gets cold, I start thinking about the holiday season and gift giving.
I don't think I'm alone. Because during this time of year our economy kind of evolves around commerce.
We've got those big shopping days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. But many of us are also shopping at small businesses too.
And of course, those small businesses in retail, technology and so many other sectors, are so important for our economy. And in the good news department, in small businesses owned by women and women of color, we are seeing incredible growth.
In fact, in the last five years women owned businesses generated over nine million jobs and accounted for $1.9 trillion in revenues. That is trillion, with a T.
And so now that we have our arms around the impact of small business, I want to bring on someone who is truly an expert. And the woman who is joining me today has been working on behalf of small businesses for most of her career.
She is an icon when it comes to small businesses and she is responsible for so many firsts. So let me tell you a little bit about her.
New York Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez is Chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee. And I'm going to let her share her story, but I'm going to give you some highlights, it's just so impressive.
She was the first Puerto Rican Women elected to the United States House of Representatives. She was the first Hispanic woman to serve as ranking member of a full committee in the history of the House of Representatives and she was the first Hispanic woman to serve as a chair of a full committee.
And as chair, she now oversees the Small Business Administration and has oversight of how legislation and policies coming out of Washington impact small businesses all across the country. That's a big deal.
So, Congresswoman, thank you for being here and thank you for what you're doing.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Thank you for having me. It's quite an honor to be here with you.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. Well, first thing is first. I gave some of the highlights and all the firsts in your professional career, but I would love it if you roll us back and tell us to how you got to where you are today.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Well, I grew up in Puerto Rico and came to, so, from a large family, nine children. My father was a sugarcane worker who instill in me the value of education, and always taught me that if you work hard and play by the rules you will succeed.
And so, at age 16 I went to the University of Puerto Rico. At age 19 I came to New York to work on my Master's at New York University.
And then at age 21 I went back to Puerto Rico and became a professor at the University of Puerto Rico. And then five years later I came to New York and got involved in activism. Organized the Puerto Rican community.
I designed one of the most comprehensive voter registration campaign ever conducted amongst Puerto Ricans, registering 250,000. And then the rest is history.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wow, what a start. And now, so much work that you're doing for Small Business. And I want to talk some more about that because we're not just talking about small businesses today, we're talking about women owned small businesses, how women of color own small businesses.
And I want to talk a little bit about how this all intersects with technology. How Small Business is doing with technology and how its intersecting with some of the bigger players in technology.
So, what can you say about all of that?
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Well, look, we need to provide every tool, at our disposal, to help women break in. Whether it is getting into contracting opportunities within the federal government or using e-commerce to sell their products and services, we have to empower women by providing the information, educational opportunities within the federal government. And that is exactly what we are doing.
Look, for me, it is about utilizing the power of the federal government to increase the opportunities available to women. And women, as we all know, are a majority of the population.
But often we have had to work twice as hard as men to prove themselves and to be taken seriously as entrepreneurs, for example. So the good news is that the number of women owned businesses is skyrocketing.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: And you mentioned that, and we have to cease the opportunities by providing tools for women, not only to start off their businesses but to expand their businesses.
And to provide, as I see it, my responsibility is to provide a level playing field for women to succeed in our economy. And one important area is the federal marketplace.
After all, the federal government is the largest purchaser of goods and services in the world. $500 billion. So, I want to make sure that women have a shot at the door.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes. Most people don't think about that, the federal government as a purchaser, but its size is incredible, relative to the rest of the economy. And the opportunities there should also be incredible too.
Now, you talked about every tool, and I liked how you said that. Because when I talk to women, particularly in technology about getting the idea off the ground, they always talk about access to capital and how it could be a big barrier.
So I'm wondering, what is the committee doing or what are you doing to help more women get the funding they need to turn their business goals into reality?
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Every time we hold a hearing or we organize roundtable, often times what business, what we hear from businesses is, that the number one issue that they are confronting today is access to affordable capital. Is the most common issue we hear.
So, that is why the Small Business Administration and the Federal Government and Congress created initiatives like the microloan program or working capital like the 7A lending program through the SBA, to give women and entrepreneurs who are being turned away from conventional loans, a place to turn.
In fact, microloans is used by 62 percent of the borrowers are women.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wow.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: So we know that is a good place for women, not only to access affordable capital, but also acts as capacity building. So, whenever someone gets a loan from a micro lender, they are not only providing that loan but they are also teaching them what are the step that they need, what are the good practices that they need to have in order for them to succeed.
And so, when we look at a program like microloans, it is, the averaging loan is about $13,000 and going up to $50,000 in 2018. Nearly half of those loans went to women.
And, we have the lowest rate of default in the microloan program --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Look at that.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: -- of any lending program within the small business administration.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's important. It's also important the way you described, not just access to capital to start a business, but access to capital to grow a business.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Right.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I don't think we've talked as much about that.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: To make sure that they have provided was the information and the tools to succeed. So, honestly we will be looking to modernize the microloan program so that it fit with the realities of being a 21st century entrepreneur.
We're also working to update programs like the Small Business Innovation Research Program. Which helps cutting edge firms take their products to the next level through funding for research and development, with the goal of bringing those products to commercialization.
So, the federal government provides grants for anyone who has a great idea to be able to do research, development and commercialization.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, that sounds good. Now, earlier this year, as you know, I was honored to join a roundtable discussion that was about female leadership and Small Business in the technology sector and you, and some of your colleagues from the Small Business Committee were leading the discussion.
And we heard so much at that event about how there are challenges for women starting businesses, but especially when it comes to technology. And I don't know about you, but I'm wondering if you had any big takeaways from that discussion because I was --
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Sure.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- so impressed by the people at the table.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Thank you for that question. You are referring to the roundtable that we held on Capitol Hill that brought innovative, and mostly, young women of color, to the table to discuss their successes in technology and some of the challenges they face.
So, it was so important, let me just say, that, to have you there because you have broken a barrier as the only woman to sit on the FCC --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, thank you.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: -- and are an inspiration to many younger women that were at the table. And it was incredible to see their reaction.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wow.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: And that is what we, as women, who serve as public servants, need to keep in mind how the role that we play is so important. Not only for the policies that we develop and that we cracked here, but for women, young women to see the possibilities of making it to Congress or making it in terms of starting up a business, taking it to the next level and be part of the solutions and be part of our economy.
So, in terms of the most important takeaway, I would say it is twofold. First, my policy staff will use recommendations that were raised in that discussion to draft legislative solutions. But other than that, it's showing young women that they belong at the table in Congress.
And to me, I don't have, or I don't know every answer to every issue. It is important to bring people from our, from every corner of America, provide them an opportunity to discuss, with us, what are the challenges that we're facing, what the things that are working, what are the other things that are not working. And for us to look at possible solutions.
So, also it is important for them to know that their voices matter and it shows the country that the face of entrepreneurship is changing. In fact, minority women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs.
So, not only suppressing their concerns, the right thing to do, it is the economically smart thing to do. And that is why I really appreciated your participation in that roundtable.
And excited to see that so many young women that participated in that discussion felt empowered because they shared their experiences and they can see how the discussion could lead to legislative solutions.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes. I just want to thank you because I felt so much power at that table.
And just hearing these women from different sectors of the economy speak about their experience, raising funds, making a pitch and having people across the table from the other side of the country or a from a totally different business sit there and say, oh, that happened to me too, here's how I dealt with it. I just felt this culture of solutions developing.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Right.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: And thank you for convening that. I think those kind of tables are so important.
And to have someone with legislative powers like yourself there makes it doubly powerful.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Thank you.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, just want to say thank you. Now, I want to talk a little bit more about the internet.
Obviously sitting here at the FCC that's something that's front and center. And it plays such a big part.
Because so many women who are starting businesses now rely on being able to access customers by selling their goods or services online. But there's actually this problem in the United States. Not everybody has reliable, affordable internet access.
I mean, the FCC has official statistics that suggests 21 million people in this country don't have access, but in fact there are other studies that show it's more than 160 million who don't access the internet of broadband speeds.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Right.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: There's just a community that doesn't have the reliable access to this infrastructure that I think is becoming increasingly important to have a successful business and a fair shot in the 21st century. And I've love to know your thoughts about that.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Yes. Sure.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Not just in rural communities but also in big cities because I think that this problem effects both.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Thank you, Commissioner, from bringing up this point because it's really important. And sometimes when we have discussion around the internet, like access, broadband access and so on, people think that that is an issue only in rural communities. But that is certainly a huge issue that deserve our focus.
So, you are right to point out that a similar lack of access is hurting urban communities, like the district that I represent in New York. You know, my district is one of the most ethnically diverse in the nation.
We have a lot of new immigrants in my district and in New York City. And even though places like New York City have over 99 percent fixed broadband coverage, 23 and 25 percent of users, in Black and Hispanic households, are smart phone dependent because they cannot afford fix broadband service.
So children think about that. Children in this household need access to affordable broadband to do their --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: -- homework and their parents need high-speed connection to develop skill and apply for new jobs.
So, we need to talk about this in the framework of economic justice.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely. I mean, I couldn't have said that better. I always talk about kids who fall into this homework gap because they have broadband at school but they get assigned school work to do at night, at home, and they don't have access.
And, you know, the days are different now, you can't just do it all with paper and pencil. And we have to start thinking about how every household is digitized for educational opportunity and economic opportunity.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Yes. Well, I pray that we move to fund an infrastructure bill because if there is a legislation that is all no-brainer, is infrastructure, transportation and infrastructure for our nation.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I agree with you when you call if economic justice too, that's the right lens to look at this through. And I'm glad you're thinking about it that way. So --
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Well, you know, in today's economy access to high-speed internet, it is a crucial part, especially for women and families.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely. I don't think you're going to have a fair shot in the 21st century if you don't have that access, so we got to figure out how to get it to everybody.
And we'll also miss the genius of so many people with ideas about businesses and services that they could start if we don't figure out how to make sure these networks reach everyone, everywhere.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: And that is a nonpartisan issue.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: You bet.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Republicans and Democrats, we must come together and provide the resources so that we could, to compete in the global economy, but also bring people that have been left behind.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely. And now, I love when you keep on talking, and when we talk about the Small Business we talk about a good idea. Those who want to start a business with a good idea.
So if somebody has a good idea, what advice would you give them? Where should they start?
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Well, we have a national network or business development centers around the nation. Over a thousand Small Business Development Centers.
And we provide classes that are free of charge. And they could come, and they should do some research as to where they can go in their communities, because I can assure you that in every city and in every state we have a number of these small business development centers.
They should contact, see when they are providing, organizing workshops so that they could go and learn. And they will help them put together a business plan. They could match them with financial institutions based on the kind of business that they want to open or startup.
So, the resources are there, just do a little research. If not, call your member of Congress and ask them, ask, inquiry as to where those small business development centers, not only small business development centers but women business development centers that are basically focused on women businesses.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, that's such good advice. Thank you for that.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Um-huh.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Now, before I let you go, there are a few questions that I like to ask everyone at the end of our conversation. It's really like a quick survey on how you use the internet.
So the first question is, for the Wayback Machine. What was the first thing you recall doing online or with the internet?
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Oh my God, I don't remember.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Back in 1990's, well --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: -- maybe checking my profile.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Ah-ha.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: But I don't know. I don't recall.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Well, you know, Member of Congress, public official, that makes a lot of sense to me.
So, this one should be easier in the recall department. What was the last thing you did online or with the internet?
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Well, that was yesterday or this morning. Checking the news. Yesterday I was checking Twitter.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: We all check the news all the time.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: It is a little overwhelming to have nonstop access, but it's powerful too.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: I know.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. This is going --
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: It's a powerful tool --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: -- if it is used the right way.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely. So what do you want the future of the internet and digital life to look like?
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Well, I want to be open, Democratic and inclusive.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, my gosh. Perfect.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: So that everyone, every, in every corner of the United States, and every corner around the world, that people have access to it. It is the great equalizer of our times.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Open, Democratic and inclusive, I like it.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Thank you.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, where can folks follow you to keep up to date with what you're doing personally in your office with the Committee?
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Sure. I post quite often on social media. Especially Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, so that you can keep up with me there.
My handles are, @nydiavelázquez. And I also encourage you to follow my account for the Small Business Committee. You can find that at @housesmallbiz.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Aw, perfect. I hope some people will do so because small business is the backbone of our economy and we are all benefitted by the fact that you have an important role in Congress. Helping develop it.
So, thank you very much, Congresswoman, I'm so glad you were able to join us.
MS. VELÁZQUEZ: Thank you, Commissioner, great honor for me. Thank you very much.