Since 1963, the USA has celebrated 1 to 7 May as National Small Business Week. Some of us may question the need to dedicate an entire week to businesses who don’t come near to the brand recognition of Nike, Walmart or Coke. In an age of giant multinational corporations (MNCs), opening a small business can seem like a quaint endeavor. The structure of a small business can differ depending on country and context. The US Small Business Administration (SBA) defines a small business as one having less than 500 employees. In other countries, perhaps this number may be lower.
Muslims are quite familiar with the fact that our Prophet (phub) is himself a merchant. Trade is inherently connected to the Deen. What a lot of Muslims do not know is that for much of Muslim history, the vast majority of enterprises were basically small businesses with a maximum of two or three partners, unlike the West which developed the idea of the joint stock company which has morphed into the modern mega corporation. In a sense, for a Muslim, pursuing trade means a stronger reliance on Allah sbt and trying to gain independence from other men and their demands. While the modern business world seeks to eliminate risk, for a Muslim merchant, risk is connected to their pursuit of livelihood.
In honor of the often under-appreciated but invaluable efforts of small business entrepreneurs, here are some overlooked benefits that small business bring to all:
MNCs may grab most of the limelight when it comes to their performance in the stock market. There is a belief, not entirely true, that how well their financial quarter is will dictate the state of the overall economy and employment. The reality is that small business still constitute the majority of job creators in most economies. In the US, according to the SBA, over 50% of workers belong to a small business, while over 65% of new jobs were created in the small business sector since 1995.
2. Fit for the Community
Small businesses often have their roots in the larger community surrounding them. The customers they serve are their families, friends and neighbors. The goods and services they offer are catered to the needs of the people and are not enforced from above by a faceless mega-corporation. Wealth spent on and generated by small businesses is circulated throughout the community rather than being siphoned offshore.
3. The Beauty of Smallness
Contrary to the popular phrase “bigger is better”, small businesses often demonstrate a soft touch that is missing when businesses scale up too large. From artisan bakeries to carpenters and others, there is a delicate, deliberate and personal approach to small businesses that imbue a value in the finished product that the mechanized means of bigger businesses find difficult to reproduce. The good or services become a result of human ingenuity and labor, and not only a quest for the bottom line.
4. Environmental Sound
Small businesses are less reliant on the supply chains that make globalization so dominant in the world today. These supply chains not only require the exhaustive use of resources, but there are many hidden social and environmental costs in their production. Long distance shipping involves a major carbon footprint. When economic recessions hit, these supply chains prove expensive and many connected businesses suffer as a result. Small businesses are more connected to local resources and hence put less of a drag on the environment (depending on the business, of course).
5. A Playground of Ideas
Beginner entrepreneurs are the ground spring for new ideas that eventually catch on and become market trends (think Uber). With less restrictions and the availability of new technology that levels the playing field with the bigger corporations, small businesses now have the potential to be more creative and thoughtful in their generating of ideas to transform the market.
There is an urgent need for young Muslims to become entrepreneurs and look at options outside the box. My own recommendation would be to expand the idea of ‘social enterprises’ that entails meeting a societal need through one’s work, such as tackling environmental concerns or community enrichment. As Imam Afroz Ali says, it isn’t about profit or non-profit, its about benefit. Essentially, one should look for work of the sort that if that industry were absent from society, it would result in harm.
So while we rush to celebrate the opening of a new McDonalds across the field, take a few moments to appreciate the solid efforts of some local businessmen and businesswoman who do put their capital and time at risk to achieve their success.