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Viewpoint: A thriving NM means supporting small businesses. Here's how.

Small businesses are the engine of our nation’s economy. But too often they get left behind by federal policies that reflect the priorities of large multinational companies and urban hubs. Last month, my staff hosted a series of roundtables with small business owners. What we heard in communities across the state — from Albuquerque to Silver City — confirmed both the enormous economic potential of small businesses and the need for policymakers to put more effort into helping them navigate the available resources that might actually address some of the challenges they face.

New Mexico’s small business ecosystem is tremendously diverse and employs over half of our state’s workforce. During our roundtables, we heard from small businesses in Indian Country and public lands champions in Albuquerque, restaurant owners and wood manufacturers in Las Vegas, health care providers and hotel managers in Carlsbad, and local economic development leaders and ceramic tile producers in Silver City. Across these communities, a few things stuck out.

First, keeping our best and brightest rooted in New Mexico remains a significant challenge for our communities, especially those in rural areas. Two-thirds of rural counties across the country lost population between 2010 and 2016. Such declines drain rural and small town communities of precious human capital, undercutting their ability to find the best employees and jump-start entrepreneurship.

We need to reverse this trend. That starts with recognizing that promising young talent needs strong local networking opportunities and mentors to develop their skills and harvest the know-how around them. Time and time again, we heard that mentors are vital for small businesses trying to get off the ground. Federal programs that connect entrepreneurs with seasoned professionals, like the Small Business Administration’s SCORE network, should continue to be backed by Congress. My CHANCE in Tech Act would also make it easier for workers to build new skills through apprenticeships that prepare our next generation of leaders.

Second, small businesses need better access to broadband. Too many rural families are marooned in digital deserts without access to online tools that can help them connect with small business resources and deliver products to faraway customers.

In New Mexico, a growing number of “solopreneurs” needs easy access to high-speed internet. Without it, their businesses will fail to keep up with the demands of a fast-moving 21st century economy. This is no small loss. The extra income rural small businesses can harness from the digital economy can be transformative. It could be the difference between sending a child to college or not.

I’ve written legislation included in this year’s farm bill that would allow tribes in New Mexico to build out broadband infrastructure without sinking into extreme debt. But we need to do more. I will continue to work with Congress to ensure that every community in New Mexico can reap the economic benefits of broadband and the digital economy.

Finally, we also need to encourage smart innovation and small business incubation. My staff had the privilege of interacting with several small business resource centers and incubators, including Albuquerque’s South Valley Economic Development Center and nonprofits like WESST that support entrepreneurs across the state.

Small business incubators give budding entrepreneurs the tools they need to succeed, including access to mentorship and funding and key educational resources that teach students basic financial literacy and business skills. We need to make sure these incubators offer culturally competent programming that promotes inclusion of the diverse cultures, languages and history that make our state special.

There are many other challenges on the road ahead. We need affordable health care and housing for small business employees. We should have trade policy that puts entrepreneurs first, instead of heaving business uncertainty onto working families trying to make ends meet. And we need to make sure our public lands are protected and commit to growing our outdoor recreation economy. Doing all of this will make New Mexico an attractive and unique environment for small business growth and innovation.