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Speech for the American Enterprise Institute’s Summer Honors Conference
As prepared for delivery
Good evening, everyone. I’m Tom Donohue, President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. I want to welcome you all to the Chamber, and congratulate you on taking part in AEI’s Summer Honors program.
This is a great way to learn about our government and the big policy issues that impact our country—and there’s no better organization to learn from. Under Arthur’s leadership, AEI has become one of the most influential thought leaders in the country—and a good friend to the business community.
I’m proud to host you all at the Chamber for what promises to be an inspiring program. I like our theme today—“How to build a startup life”—and I’ll offer a few of my own thoughts on what it means.
About the Chamber
First, let me start by telling you a little about the U.S. Chamber. We’re the largest business organization in the world, representing the interests of about 3 million businesses. You’re probably familiar with local chambers of commerce around the country. It’s important to realize that they founded us, and not the other way around.
On your way out, take a look at the big plaque on the wall in our front lobby. It lists the local chambers that came together back in 1912 to found the U.S. Chamber. They did it because they needed a unified presence in Washington. They needed a voice in the federal policy debates impacting business.
Today, we are that voice. The Chamber has a seat at the table in virtually every major policy debate impacting our economy. We’re active in campaigns, on Capitol Hill, with the administration, and with business and government leaders across the country, and around the world.
But what are the principles that drive our efforts?
I’ll give you a big one: Economic growth.
We live by the idea that if it’s good for growth, it’s good for everyone—every business, every worker, and every community. Currently our economy is in a historic stretch of slow growth—hovering at an annual rate of around 1 to 2 percent. We need to do better if we want job creation and higher wages for our people.
The Chamber works with our government to advance a variety of pro-growth policies. We set a seven part agenda this year: To provide regulatory relief and reform, harness U.S. energy, modernize our infrastructure, overhaul our tax code, expand American trade, foster a competitive workforce, and reform America’s legal system.
If we can make progress in these areas, it would go a long way toward jolting our economy back to life. But beyond growth, there’s another principle that drives our efforts here at the Chamber—and it’s the very principle that serves as the foundation and namesake of AEI…
And that’s American free enterprise.
I told you about the plaque in the lobby. Well, if you look across from it, on the opposite wall you’ll see the Chamber emblem with our motto: “The Spirit of Enterprise.” It serves as a daily reminder of why we’re here and what our work is all about.
The Role of Business in America
Let’s remember how unique and special American free enterprise is. While many countries around the world have similar systems today, America was the pioneer.
In most nations throughout history, it was the government, or the military, or a religious institution that determined the progress and direction of society. But then along came the grand experiment of America with its free enterprise system.
It allowed good ideas from anyone, anywhere, to rise to the top.
It allowed people born into poverty—who in other societies would have been doomed to remain there for life—to instead put their skills to work and enter the middle class.
It allowed countless people to fulfill a dream by starting a business—achieving security for their family, creating meaningful jobs for their neighbors, and improving the quality of life in their communities.
It allowed businesses to drive progress and opportunity—and to become a leading force for good in society.
You might look at your friends studying medicine, or teaching, or public service and think—they’re really going to do something good. They’re going to make a difference. And they will! But in our country, I believe business is the most efficient and effective means of touching lives.
Its very purpose is to solve problems and perform services. It’s a competition to provide value—and it has multiple winners. The customer wins, the companies win, their employees win, and most importantly, society wins.
Think about our public schools, our social safety net, our strong national defense, our support for the arts, for scientific research, or for a clean environment—none of these would be possible without businesses driving growth and generating revenue for government.
Business also invented the most successful social program ever devised—a job and a paycheck! There are 33 million businesses in our country, providing 112 million Americans with jobs. Think about all the dignity and dreams those opportunities bring to life.
But businesses also go above and beyond to benefit society. To put it simply: businesses that do well, do good.
Next time a natural disaster strikes, pay close attention to how many companies rush to donate money, food, supplies, services, and even shelter to aid in recovery efforts. Businesses also lead the efforts to find solutions to pressing problems in society.
An example is the ongoing impact of automation and technology on the job market.
Our country has been watching low skilled jobs slowly evaporate for years, and we know that bringing old jobs back is not an option if we want to stay competitive. This is a problem the business community is working to solve, and the Chamber is helping coordinate efforts.
One solution needs to be aligning education and workforce training with the needs of our job creators, and the Chamber has a plan to do that.
But on this issue and the many others before us, we need all of you to be leaders—not just leaders of tomorrow, but of today. Offer ideas, formulate solutions, and speak up on behalf of the many in your generation who are struggling to find a place in our changing economy.
It’s my hope that you will join the Chamber and the scholars at AEI in defending American free enterprise—and the positive role of business in society. Especially when it isn’t popular.
As undergraduates, all of you are at the center of one of the most important free speech battles of our time. Too many today are seeking to shut down debate at our universities by silencing anyone who objects to their point of view. But there is no such thing as the right to never be challenged or offended—especially not at an institution of higher learning.
On the important issues affecting our country, all of us must have the guts to stand up and be counted, no matter how loudly others might tell us to sit down.
Leaders of Today
It’s important for all of you to be leaders on your campuses and among your peers, because the stakes are very high for your generation. Yours is the largest generation in American history. You’re already enormously important as voters, activists, and increasingly—as business people and professionals.
And let me tell you… I have a lot of hope in your generation. The business community should be very optimistic that you will uphold the principles of free enterprise. The reason is because I have never seen a generation of Americans more passionate about entrepreneurship and innovation.
You are the Start Up Generation. And as we’ve gone around the country meeting with small businesses and entrepreneurs, we’ve met more and more millennials who are sick of government getting in the way of their businesses. They’re open to new, creative policy ideas that empower our innovators rather than our government.
There are few people better equipped to speak about those ideas than Arthur Brooks. He’s smart, creative, and thoughtful. And as you’ll see tonight, he’s got good ideas not just on policy—but on how to live better, more effective lives.
His concept of building a “startup life” is a powerful idea. Just as the spirit of entrepreneurship can drive progress in our economy and our nation—it can also drive progress in our personal lives. Thinking big, taking risks, solving problems, staying nimble, always looking to grow—these are the qualities that make for a great start up business, and also a great life.
And as Arthur will point out, we don’t have to look to successful CEOs to find role models in these areas, we can look to people and communities even on the margins of our society.
The Spirit of Enterprise is all around us. And that’s what sets America apart.
I’ll turn it over to Arthur now to tell us more about how to build a startup life. Let’s give him a hand.