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Are we more ethical?

I was recently playing racquetball with my friend Rick (I won for once, yeah me!) After we were done Rick asked me if I thought that businesses here are more ethical than in other places.

It got me to thinking about an incident that happened to me a few years back.

I owned a hot tub and wanted to sell it. A buyer came over and asked me whether, if she bought it, she could continue to keep it in my back yard for a month until she had her deck finished. No problem.

I'm not anti-business

My first day back from a vacation week at the wind-swept Oregon coast, and I get a brutal tongue-lashing from the spokeswoman for Evraz Inc. North America.

It turns out she didn’t like my timeline detailing the dramatic transformation of Oregon Steel, from an industrial powerhouse employing thousands to a minor cog within a debt-ridden Russian empire. For starters she questioned me on my facts, which came from public records, news stories and company press releases. Then the conversation quckly turned, as such discussions often do, to motives. Before long she had suggested that I was anti-business for writing the piece.

I’m not anti-business. I’m anti-job loss. As anyone who has followed this blog knows, I give credit where it is due. But when a Russian oligarch who really likes big yachts buys a major Oregon employer and a few years later a vital player in the Portland Harbor is hanging on for dear life, I feel compelled to point out a few facts. It’s up to the reader to decide whether or not the facts are relevant.

An e-affair to remember

My husband calls it my electronic boyfriend, and not without a bit of jealousy. Hey! Mind out of the sewer. He’s talking about my iPhone.

I’ve had it for almost two years, and I’m as smitten with it now as when I first brought it home, lifted its slim body from its cradle and forever synced it with my life. It’s a phone with benefits. Even when it treated me very badly (my first two iPhones literally blew up) I never thought of dumping it. Sort of like having a bad Italian boyfriend: beautiful, sexy, unreliable, temperamental. (Phone No. 3 has been more faithful, however.) And, ooh la la, we can go shopping together in the Apple App Store, where I pick out fun new toys to bestow on him. When the husband asks me what I’m doing on my phone all the time, I tell him I’m reading the Economist.

My iPhriend has turned out to be a gateway drug. Because of it, I’ve become almost exclusively electronic in my consumption of entertainment. I still get the daily print copy of The New York Times (because, damn, I can’t let those guys go out of business), and I only like magazines in print format, including my own (because damn, I can’t let us guys go out of business). But all my music comes through iTunes now. I don’t buy CDs anymore. I watch movies on my computer instead of my TV; I never buy DVDs and rarely go out to the movie theater. I get most of my news from websites and radio.

More help on the way

Last week I reported that our own freshman senator Jeff Merkley was doing some good work in sponsoring a bill to help small business. Although there is a lot more Congress could do to help small business (we’ll tackle that one down the road) the good news is that another Oregon lawmaker is looking to pass legislation that will help small business.

Congressman David Wu is the co-sponsor of a bill sailing through Congress, the Enhancing Small Business Innovation and Research Act.

I am often asked if there really is “free money” available for small business startups. The short answer is, not surprisingly, no. But the longer answer is that there is some federal grant money available in very specific cases, due to this program, SBIR.

A jump start for small biz

If history is any guide, it will be small business that leads the country out of these difficult economic times, and given that, it is nice to see that our own newly elected freshman senator, Jeff Merkley, is trying to help us help you.

Merkley recently introduced into Congress the Small Business Jump Start Act, designed to support small business owners by cutting taxes for the start-up costs of small businesses.

Presently, new businesses are eligible for a $5,000 tax deduction if they spend $50,000 or more on start-up costs. The new legislation proposed by Merkley and co-sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) would not only boost the deduction to $10,000, it would also expand eligibility to companies that spend up to $60,000 on getting started.

The business of a new life

The two dozen women inmates incarcerated at Coffee Creek Correctional Institution in Wilsonville stared at me ravenously; cubs eyeing the thing they hoped would feed them.

OK, a bit purple. OK, a lot purple. But I have to redeem myself by at least using one metaphor here, since I couldn’t give the group a decent example during a writing class I recently taught at the prison. There I was going on about great writing and how they should use metaphors for power and persuasion, when one of the women asked for an example. My mind went as blank as a subpoened bank accountant. (Now, had they wanted a simile, I would have been ready.)

I was volunteering for a program run by Mercy Corps Northwest under the affable direction of John Haines, Mercy Corps Northwest executive director, and Doug Cooper, assistant director. It’s a smart project, one of several around the country that use entrepreneurship as a way to give prisoners a new start.

Strike up the band

A hot Wednesday wind blew me into the cool air of Nedspace, a co-working hub for startups on Southwest Third Avenue in downtown Portland. I was on my way to meet Carolynn Duncan, founder of Portland Ten.

I first met Duncan a few months ago when she co-organized with another serial entrepreneur, Pete Grillo, a surprise kazoo sendoff serenade for a mutual friend at Paddy’s. We were criminally awful and it greatly embarrassed our buddy Abraham. Duncan’s enthusiasm and her joy at watching him squirm were immense. I liked that. So we got to know each other a bit over follow-up coffee just as she was launching Portland Ten, which helps early-stage tech startups. I promised to keep tabs. Women are rare in this arena, especially young women. Kazoo expertise is even scarcer.

Which brings me back to NedSpace. Duncan’s second group of entrepreneurs recently started the 12-week boot camp that “combines venture capital investment standards, Getting Things Done methodology, and extreme bootstrapping philosophy.” There also are “workouts” to help founders develop “muscle” and checkups. (I get sweaty just reading this.) Founders have to put in six to eight hours a week and commit to generating $1 million in revenue by 2010. The goal of Portland Ten is to create 10 of these start-ups in the next 18 months.

Made in Oregon

President Obama’s new Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, is in Portland today to take a test ride on the first made-in-the-U.S.A. streetcar in 58 years. Make that Made in Oregon.

It’s part of a big brouhaha to commemorate the launch of the $75 million streetcar extension funded by the stimulus package. I have to admit I’m no fan of political pomp, but this is a ceremony with some serious substance behind it. Oregon reps tried and failed for years to get the Bush Administration to back the streetcar extension, only to lose out to the usual pile-up of highway projects. This very welcome policy reversal will create manufacturing jobs not only in Clackamas, where seven new streetcars will be built, but also at other local companies that will feed into a new regional production chain that could with luck grow into something resembling the Freightliner economy we are losing.

About a half-dozen public officials are climbing aboard for the ride, which is fitting since the deal is publicly financed. But maximum credit really should go to Chandra Brown, the hard-charging president of United Streetcar.

Insurance bills don't help business

All of the chatter about healthcare reform is nice, but it sure does remind one of that old Mark Twain line: “Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

So we have to give at least a few props to the Oregon legislature for tackling the issue. They recently passed House Bills 2009 and 2116. Do they make health insurance more affordable? A small business owner might be heartened by the fact that a group called the Oregon Small Business Healthcare Initiative supported the passage the bills and consider them “important steps in controlling rising health care costs and improving the quality of health care for Oregonians.”

But in reality, what these twin bills have to do with small business is beyond me. According to Oregon Senate Democrats, “Together, the two bills will cover 95% of Oregon’s uninsured children and extend coverage to an additional 35,000 low-income adults while instituting a reformed model of health care delivery for Oregonians.”