“I’m encouraging the growth of the company but also looking at the individuals as well. What are their goals and how can their goals help the company and, in a sense, help them too.”
--Phoebe Suina, Owner, High Water, LLC
I get excited about the vision of small business owners like Phoebe. She leads High Water, LLC, a Native American woman-owned environmental consulting company in Bernalillo, New Mexico, with a specialty in water resources. She is growing her business while investing in the future of her employees.
Her quote speaks to the work we’re doing in our Economic Mobility and Opportunity strategy to equip small- and medium-sized businesses with the tools to grow, implement best practices in the workplace, and create quality jobs that advance economic mobility for workers earning low wages. This includes workers of color, women, and individuals whose educational attainment levels are low, limiting their upward mobility over time.
Part of this work involves having a shared definition of a quality job. You may be surprised to know that workers don’t always cite pay as the number one factor in considering job quality. The Aspen Institute’s Job Quality Fellows define a quality job as one with wages that cover basic living expenses and create opportunities to build wealth, safe working conditions free from discrimination and harassment and welcoming of ideas, stable and predictable work hours, and a benefits package that facilitates a healthy, stable life. By better understanding what workers value in a job, business owners are able to consider what they can and cannot provide that will attract and retain talent.
Small- and medium-sized businesses are pivotal in this regard in terms of improving economic mobility broadly because it’s estimated that they employ over 66 percent of workers with the lowest economic mobility. In addition, businesses led by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) provide eight million jobs, accounting for $1.2 trillion in annual revenue.
While most employers agree that raising workers’ low wages contributes to a company’s long-term competitiveness, small- and medium-sized businesses often don’t have the resources to invest in workers and may struggle with cash flow. Even so, they recognize the benefits of investing in their employees and often see that investment as synonymous with investing in their organization’s growth strategy. Business owners also underscore that providing resources on the job helps strengthen employee performance and those owners often make a personal commitment to give back to employees through mentorship.
Two of our partners are working to advance economic mobility for workers earning low wages in very distinct ways. Interise is a national network that’s building diverse and inclusive local economies by helping small- and medium-sized businesses grow, especially BIPOC-led businesses. WorkRise is a national platform that’s identifying research insights to transform the labor market, including helping the field better understand what workers want and how to increase mobility through jobs. Hosted by the Urban Institute, WorkRise is testing and sharing bold ideas in the workforce.
Interise offers small businesses solutions for both immediate and sustained impact through diverse program offerings such as Small Business, Stronger; Streetwise MBA (named by the World Bank as 1 of 25 must-see entrepreneurship education programs in the world), Supplier Capacity Building, Accelerate BIPOC, Grow My People, and others.
For example, for small- and medium-sized business owners, earning a StreetWise MBA certificate includes hands-on, peer-to-peer learning, CEO mentoring groups, live cases using their businesses, a three-year strategic growth action plan, and inclusion in a national business network. In a 2019 impact report, Interise found that StreetWise MBA alumni experienced an average annual growth rate of 36%, and minority alumni companies operating businesses in low- and moderate-income communities saw the largest average annual growth rate of 77%. Alumni companies also created jobs at four times the national rate with salaries 3% higher than the national average.
A key focus in Interise’s research is understanding system failures preventing small business-led economic development and the action steps needed to advance toward an inclusive economy. Their approach recognizes that building the capacity of local small and minority-owned businesses helps create quality jobs and has the potential to close the wealth gap. Phoebe is one of 9,000+ alumni of the program.
WorkRise is rebuilding a more equitable and resilient labor market that expands opportunity and economic mobility for workers. Through its research grantmaking and pilots on worker mobility, WorkRise supported a randomized controlled trial in partnership with IKEA to test and evaluate the benefits of stable scheduling practices for hourly workers and they launched a research initiative on how employment and work hours are impacted by access to public safety nets such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Earned Income Tax Credit. WorkRise also evaluated occupational pathways that drive mobility for the 71 million people in the U.S. labor market who lack college degrees but have the skills needed for vacant jobs employers are trying to fill.
I’m looking forward to the new learnings that will come out of their recent grants to dozens of research projects aimed at strengthening economic security for workers earning low wages. This latest round of research grants will focus on understanding the effects of equity gaps and the impact of state and local policies and business practices on Black workers and other workers of color, immigrants, and women.
The groundbreaking work of Interise and WorkRise is helping move more BIPOC-led, small and medium-sized businesses and all businesses toward creating quality jobs and adopting best practices that advance mobility.
We are learning so much from our partners across the mobility field and those learnings and subsequent action steps are contributing to our broader effort to ensure that everyone, regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity, has the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life, and be part of an inclusive economy where they can thrive.
Interise is on a mission to create an inclusive economy by supporting established BIPOC-owned and/or small businesses located in low-income communities. They are achieving their mission through purposeful research that turns insights into actions; bold programs that close gaps in business knowledge, know-how, and networks; and national partnerships that create impact at local, regional, and state-wide levels. For more information, visit www.interise.org.
Interise is a partner and grantee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
WorkRise is a research-to-action network on jobs, workers, and mobility hosted by the Urban Institute, a national platform for identifying, testing, and sharing bold ideas for transforming the labor market. They are funding research on promising practices, policies, and programs and generating data and evidence that strengthens employers, informs policymaking, and provides genuine economic mobility and security for workers—especially Black and other people of color, including women and youth, who face systemic barriers to opportunity. For more information, visit www.workrisenetwork.org.
WorkRise is a partner and grantee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.