Here’s the idea they came up with: Americans themselves would start lending to small businesses, with Starbucks serving as the middleman. Starbucks would find financial institutions willing to loan to small businesses. Starbucks customers would be able to donate money to the effort when they bought their coffee. Those who gave $5 or more would get a red-white-and-blue wristband, which Schultz labeled “Indivisible.” “We are hoping it will bring back pride in the American dream,” he says. The tag line will read: “Americans Helping Americans.”It seems to me this is a variation on microlending, usually a developing-world phenomenon to help the poor develop their own businesses. It could be effective. But I'm worried about one thing: Starbucks' effort reduces new and small businesses, essentially, to charity cases.
It didn’t take long for Starbucks to find the perfect financial partner: Community Development Financial Institutions, or CDFIs. These are lenders, mostly under the radar, that specialize in underserved communities. Most, but not all, CDFIs are nonprofit, and their loan default rates are extremely low. “We specialize in expending credit, getting paid back, and paying back our investors,” says Mark Pinsky, whose organization, Opportunity Finance Network, acts as an umbrella group to the best of them.
And maybe that's the way it has to be in 2011 America. But—since I'm not a socialist, and want to actually see markets made to work for the maximum public good—I'd rather see Starbucks put its muscle behind a Kickstarter-style operation that lets entrepreneurs raise capital by going directly to the customers for their products. That lets businesses that have an actual market for their ideas rise to the top rather quickly, instead of going through a bureaucracy—even a well-intentioned one—that'll have more of a hit-miss rate. And Kickstarter-type operations strengthen capitalism by providing investors with a return on investment—even if that return is simply the product being manufactured—instead of the warm glow of nebulously "saving American jobs."
I'm grateful that Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz is thinking about this kind of stuff. But Starbucks didn't start out as a charity case; it created a product that people liked, and became fabulously successful doing so. For the next generation of businesses to succeed and provide jobs, they'll have to do the same thing. In this case, maybe it's better that we ask Americans to be investors instead of donors.