Seth Levine, Managing Director at Foundry Group, has been a MergeLane supporter since the beginning. He recently released the book, The New Builders, which he co-authored with Elizabeth MacBride. I had the chance to finish reading the book last weekend and I'm so glad I did. Here's my review.
If there is one thing America loves, it’s a good entrepreneur success story. One where a brilliant self-starter works tirelessly to take their unique idea from concept to the market, where they overcome setbacks through grit and maybe just a little luck to build a Fortune 500 company. But that type of success story is just that… a story.
In their book, The New Builders, Seth Levine and Elizabeth MacBride take on the cliche of the “lone entrepreneur” -- the typically white, male, Silicon Valley tech startup founder. They bring to the forefront the essential funding, networking, mentoring, and even legislative infrastructure that enables an entrepreneur to become successful. More importantly, by exposing those critical tools of successful entrepreneurs, Levine and MacBride shed light on what they call the New Builders, the large number of small business owners, spread across America, who are more commonly women and people of color, who are systematically disadvantaged by that story we tell ourselves about what makes someone an entrepreneur and what defines success.
The New Builders weaves together threads of political, economic, and social trends to narrate the roots of the American “entrepreneurial spirit” and how it came to be so closely associated with fast-growth companies with high returns. An essential part of this story is the way that our mechanisms for supporting entrepreneurs have adjusted accordingly, feeding more and more capital and confidence into a narrow swath of businesses, thereby leaving the vast majority of entrepreneurs – the New Builders – without the resources they need to survive, let alone thrive. Levine and MacBride leverage data to detail how these patterns make our economy less dynamic and less innovative, while also reinforcing generations of racism and sexism. A crucial, recurring example is how the consolidation of the banking system and the decline of community banks have compounded the wealth gap, leaving many without the personal or institutional financing needed to get their business off the ground.
The real backbone of the book, like that of a dynamic economy, are the New Builders themselves. The stories of diverse business owners -- a woman who bakes cakes for the Dominican community, a family of wilderness guides in Montana, a young man designing t-shirts for his classmates -- animate the broader themes. The reader quickly understands that these entrepreneurs are also extraordinarily innovative, driven, and hard-working; however, they tend to lack critical banking relationships, valuable networks of fellow entrepreneurs, or mentors who can help them identify manufacturing inefficiencies or new revenue streams. What is striking is the deep ties these individuals have to their communities. Yes, the New Builders are essential to a more dynamic and diverse economy, but they are also driving revitalization in the neighborhoods where others have given up hope.
Even as the reader marvels at the grit and perseverance of these New Builders, it was easy to feel dwarfed by the task at hand. What exactly can we do to reorient our models of banking, networking, and mentoring to lift up this key part of our economy? The book is not an instruction manual so much as it is an impassioned plea to better understand the flaws of the current system. Levine and MacBride then provide a myriad of examples of how individuals, groups, and communities collaborate, find workarounds, create new systems. In so doing, The New Builders seems to have faith that its audience of entrepreneurs, investors, and change-makers will do what they always do: rise to meet the challenge.