Big government is a far heavier burden to those who start out without privileges and advantages.
A customer picks out lumber at a Home Depot in Washington, Feb. 11, 2022. PHOTO: MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK
No one has seen entrepreneurship help minorities improve their economic circumstances more than I have—and that’s not only because I’m 93.
I saw the power of entrepreneurship firsthand after co-founding the Home Depot. My experiences led me to believe that preserving and expanding entrepreneurship is the key to advancing racial and economic equality.
Entrepreneurship offers all Americans, no matter their background, a way to achieve financial independence and the American Dream. Entrepreneurship rewards goods and services that the market values independent of the financial resources, SAT scores or personal pedigrees of the people selling them.
With almost no money, I had the idea to open a hardware store, a lumberyard and a garden store all in one. What began as a single store in Georgia grew to more than 2,000 locations nationwide and made me a billionaire in the process. Only in America could a member of an ethnic minority from a poor immigrant family write that kind of success story.
The financial rewards pale in comparison to the emotional rewards of seeing my company help others become financially independent through entrepreneurship. The Home Depot democratized the home-improvement, landscaping and building trades so that anyone willing to work up a sweat and learn some basic skills could immediately start a sole proprietorship or small business serving some of the nation’s 80 million homeowners.
You can see the entrepreneurs driving around town in their trucks full of tools and material. Many of them are minorities. They don’t consider themselves victims of racial wealth or income gaps; they are actively overcoming economic disparities through work.
That isn’t happening only in building and landscaping. In almost every part of the economy, you’ll find entrepreneurial minorities breaking through difficult circumstances to achieve and live the American Dream. Accelerating this process is the key to bridging the country’s economic divides.
Unfortunately, government is moving in the wrong direction, erecting hurdles to entrepreneurship. My company wouldn’t have succeeded if it had started in today’s climate of regulations and taxes that disproportionately burden small businesses. The Home Depot almost went bankrupt several times in its first decade, and today’s policy environment would have tipped us into insolvency—as it does to countless entrepreneurs each year.
The biggest victims of bad government policy aren’t the elite; they will always be able to get into good schools and get their foot in the door of corporate America. The people hurt most by big government are those who lack advantages in becoming economically independent, often minorities.
“Freedom is a fragile thing and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction”, Ronald Reagan said in 1967. “It is not ours by way of inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people.”
Celebrating the stories and successes of minority entrepreneurs can generate the public support needed to defend the free-market economy against big-government threats. These ordinary entrepreneurs are the heroes of modern-day America, even if they are frequently treated as villains by government officials who siphon their resources to fund their latest social-policy aims.
Americans should treat minority entrepreneurs with the respect they deserve and consider how bad public policy prevents them from surviving and thriving. A newfound respect for minority entrepreneurs, who have done so much with so little, can provide the societal foundation needed to ensure the next generation of Home Depots. It can lay the groundwork for even more minority entrepreneurship success stories than I’ve seen in my lifetime.
Entrepreneurship is freedom. By defending the former, we can preserve the latter for generations.
This essay is adapted from his foreword to the new book “The Real Race Revolutionaries: How Minority Entrepreneurship Can Overcome America’s Racial and Economic Divides” by Alfredo Ortiz.
This opinion piece was originally published in the Wall Street Journal