A Q&A with Hanna Schulze, president of People First Economy
Grand Rapids-based economic development nonprofit People First Economy has helped launch a statewide campaign advocating for voting rights and access initiatives.
The Michigan Business for Democracy collaborative is mirrored off of similar efforts in eight other states, serving as a coordinated group to give small businesses a voice in pressing social and political issues.
People First Economy Hanna Schulze says the new venture also is meant to help guide business owners who are struggling with a response to social issues — and supporting their employees — while trying to avoid weighing into politics. Schulze recently spoke with MiBiz about this weight on small business owners, and how they can take internal measures to promote a healthy work environment.
How did the collaborative assemble around this purpose to promote voting rights?
We started in this advocacy space in 2020 because we were seeing a lot of our small businesses suffering disproportionately from the pandemic and weren’t receiving the support or access to resources as our largest corporations were. We were taking the time to talk with their employees and making sure they were safe. The Restaurant Promise, for example, saw several hundred restaurants pledge to go above and beyond COVID-19 precautions to keep their staff safe. It was the first time seeing a significant movement around: Yes we’re a business, we want to make money, but it’s also important to take care of our people. That lends itself to policy advocacy.
We started taking a sharper lens to that, and asking: What are our biggest initiatives? The most important dates on our calendars for the next couple of years really are the midterm elections, and how important it is for folks to show up to the polls and make their voices heard so people in those legislative seats are representing everyone in the community, not just the most powerful.
We’re seeing initiatives to suppress voter access, and seeing really scary stuff at the federal and state level with issues most impacting the small business community.
How do you view the intersection of business and advocating on issues such as voting rights?
There are a couple of major issues facing all businesses right now: Insane inflation of the cost of goods, and wages need to be part of that because the cost of living is going up so quickly. For us, when you think about what it’s like to show up to work as a human, it can be hard to show up and do your best when you read in the news that your rights are being attacked. For business owners, certainly there’s the warm and fuzzy side of really wanting to take care of your people — that’s absolutely true. But also, if you’re a small business owner, you don’t really have the time or capacity to play therapist to your staff because you’re struggling to make ends meet. Putting that burden on small business owners is challenging, and we’re seeing that burnout show up in many different ways.
When I have those conversations with my team, folks are showing up and struggling to find joy. We say: Here are the elections. If you’re really concerned about women’s reproductive rights in Michigan, here’s how you can show up. We’re not pushing an agenda, but if this is keeping you up at night, here’s what you can do. It’s equipping folks with that information.
How many businesses have signed on to the collaborative, and how many do you expect to?
Certainly, we’re working to get as many as we can get. This whole political or advocacy organizing is super new to our organization. We’re not interested in any sort of endorsing and political agenda. We want to stay nonpartisan. But that said, even with businesses run by the most outspoken individuals, sometimes they hesitate to put their business brand behind any movement that can be construed as partisan.
It’s an interesting task. We really want to take this relational approach to organizing and what we need to do to have small business prioritized and for the economy to be resilient. Yet we don’t want to force someone to put their logo on something. For us, it’s really about providing information and giving folks on-ramps to participate in ways that they’re comfortable with.
What would you say to business owners who are grappling with these social issues at a management level?
I think it’s certainly a personal decision. That’s part of the beauty and challenge of owning a business, especially if you’re a small business owner. From a very basic level, I would encourage folks, especially if they’re hesitant to do anything major or bold or put stuff on social media: Just have an open conversation with their team and see what folks are talking about. Maybe it’s an anonymous survey, or just a note saying we’re aware there’s a lot going on in the world right now. You might be feeling some kind of way, but my door is open if you want to have a conversation. That’s where you find where your people want to align.
We’re seeing trends that by 2025, over 75 percent of our workforce will be Gen Z or Millennials. That’s the talent we’re looking for that we want in the communities, and where the wealth will be. Being complacent or in the background and saying you don’t want to get involved is becoming less and less of a good argument for folks because their customer base, both internal and external, is looking for that statement. It’s all about choice and all about how we make ourselves appealing for folks that will come and be loyal to our business. I think we’re going to see that it’s time to speak up or suffer.
— Interview conducted and condensed by Andy Balaskovitz. Courtesy photo