Stacey Abrams is best known as a champion for voting rights and a rising star in the Democratic Party.
Credited with helping flip both of Georgia’s state seats from Republican to Democrat last year, she is making her second run for Georgia governor.
Her career as an author of nonfiction, romance novels, and a Supreme Court thriller published last year, is also well known.
Less discussed is her long career in business.
Among other ventures, Ms. Abrams is the co-founder of a fintech company that pays businesses immediately for their sales to other businesses, while giving their clients the option to pay invoices within a 30- to 90-day window. Ms. Abrams delves into this aspect of her background in a new book out this month, “Level Up: Rise Above the Hidden Forces Holding Your Business Back.” Written with her business partner, Lara Hodgson, the book recounts lessons they’ve learned in business – some of which have turned out to be lessons relevant to politics, too.
“Being an entrepreneur is central to how I think about not only my role in politics,” Ms. Abrams told DealBook. “It’s part of what drives the way I think about legislation.”
DealBook spoke with Ms. Abrams about how she views the intersection of business and politics. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What is the difference between politics and business?
The deliverable is different in business. Both have customers, but in business, you get to pick your customers. You get to decide the kind of products you want to deliver, and you can narrow down the type of customer who’s likely to shop with you because of the type of product you deliver. Politics is about delivering for a very broad cross section who have disparate and diverse needs.
How do you feel about being the product – the deliverable?
I don’t think I’m the product. I think I’m the conduit. I work hard to carry that across all of the spaces where I operate – the nonprofit space, the for-profit space, the political space.
You should not vote for me as a person. You should vote for me as a proxy, as a representative for who you are and what you want your community to be. The minute a politician becomes the product itself, we find ourselves in a lot of trouble. We’ve had recent examples of people buying the commodity versus the conduit.
Your book is about small businesses. How would you measure the success or failure of the Paycheck Protection Program?
I think it was inefficient. I think for certain communities, it was ultimately wholly ineffective. I know that the first run of PPP, if you were a Black-owned business, your ability to secure those loans was almost negligible. And the same thing was true for other communities of color. I know that small businesses were often outmatched by large companies who had faster access to banks willing to allocate those dollars. I think we forget what we learned in the economic crisis of 2008: We have to treat small businesses as small businesses, and we have to reassess what we call a small business.
Do you think the private sector should be apolitical or political?
Businesses operate as part of the fabric of society. You don’t get to exempt yourself from that participation.
The question is, how vocal should you be? And what impact should you have? I think that there are political human rights issues that are important and vital because they affect your customers. They affect your ability to operate as a business.
It is important though, to calibrate where we enter politics. And the most important point of entry is that you are protecting the customers that you serve and that you are protecting the business that makes your living possible.
But what about when speaking out has negative political implications? I’m thinking of the Georgia House voting to revoke a tax break for Delta after the company spoke up about voting rights.
Is the issue important enough that you’re willing to accept the consequences and will your voice have an effect on the outcome? Delta speaks up because Delta has an effect on the outcome of ideas in the state, as they should. And so we have seen that play out on issues affecting the LGBT community and the transgender community. We’ve seen it affecting civil rights. We’ve seen it affect apartheid. So we know that when businesses speak up, it has an effect. Now, retaliation is also real. The larger you are, the more outsized your influence, the more I think you should be responsible for using your influence.
In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, there were a lot of pledges made by corporate America, and specifically the banks, to do better by minorities – in particular Black-owned businesses, small businesses. Do you think it was real or rhetorical?
I think it was well intended, but it has been poorly deployed. One of the issues is how do you identify who should receive these funds? Big corporations make decisions at their scale, not at the small business scale. There are existing and structural impediments for small businesses that major corporations either do not understand or do not remember. And that’s what has to be solved if we want those pledges to be made real.
Is there anybody you think that’s doing it right?
There’s some, yes. I’m a good enough politician though that I’m not going to start naming names.
It’s usually better politics to say which ones are doing it wrong. Do you want to say those?
No, I do not.