Remarks Prepared for Delivery by U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao For Fifth Annual Opportunity Conference

September 18, 2007.

Thank you, Chiling.

Welcome, everyone, to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Fifth Annual Opportunity Conference!

Let me acknowledge our co-sponsors:

* The Association of Small Business Development Centers;
* The League of United Latin American Citizens;
* The National Urban League; and
* The U.S. Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce.

I’d also like to thank the record number of partners and exhibitors whose support has been so important.  And let me mention the many volunteers who work hard to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Finally, let me thank Karen Czarnecki, Director of the Office of the 21st Century Workforce, and Anna Hui, Associate Counselor to the Secretary, and all of their colleagues who worked so hard to bring us together.

This afternoon, permit me to share some thoughts on the state of our economy, the importance of small business to the economy, and some of the ways the Labor Department is helping you grow your enterprises or community organizations.

As you may know, I started this conference in 2003 to help traditionally underserved communities grow and access opportunity in mainstream America.  My own experience is that traditionally underserved communities are often unaware of the tremendous resources available within mainstream America to help them achieve their dreams.

So a goal of this annual conference has been to bring leaders of America’s diverse communities together to familiarize entrepreneurs, community organizers, and others with a wide variety of resources that may not be familiar to them.

Let me also give some perspective on the overall economy.  Despite challenges in the housing and financial credit markets, the fundamentals of our nation’s economy are still healthy.  Output grew by 4 percent< in the 2nd Quarter, driven in part by increasing U.S. exports.  And even with the numerous headwinds our economy is facing, most economists expect growth to continue.  Unemployment remains a very low 4.6 percent, more than a full point lower than the average of the 1990s, which was 5.7 percent.  More than 8.2 million new jobs have been created since August 2003.  And productivity growth is steady, which paves the way for higher pay for workers.  Since January 2001, real after-tax personal income has risen 11.9 percent.

This growth is creating abundant opportunities for workers, entrepreneurs and community leaders.  So this conference is very timely.

These conferences are designed specifically for you.  They showcase success stories so you can benefit from others’ best practices, lessons learned, and useful tips.  There are workshops in which experts offer advice on how to grow a business, learn from mistakes, and remain optimistic despite setbacks or challenges.  And these conferences provide a great opportunity to network and make new contacts.

This Administration recognizes the vital, job-creating role that small businesses play in our growing economy.  Today small and medium size businesses represent over 99 percent of employers in the United States.  They provide nearly 83 percent of all private payroll jobs.  And they are responsible for the vast majority of the net new jobs created in our economy.

And that’s why this conference focuses on empowering entrepreneurs.  Small businesses tell us that accessing capital and growing their business are among their highest priorities.  So this morning’s agenda includes a workshop on venture capital for small business.  Later today the Conference is offering another workshop on marketing and media strategies.  And the conference includes a workshop to help small businesses and community organizations understand one of the most significant Department of Labor regional grant programs, called Workforce Innovation In Regional Economic Development.  If youmissed the opportunity to attend the WIRED workshop or other sessions featuring Department of Labor initiatives, there are agency booths in our exhibitor area where you can find answers to questions you might have.

All of you, whether you are an entrepreneur, sole proprietor, or leader of a community or faith based organization, are making contributions to our economy.  And this conference is designed to help you to succeed.  It’s not always easy for a small business or community organizations to access the tools needed to blaze new pathways.  Many lack the resources to tap the information they need to compete for federal government contracts.

Understanding the federal procurement process is important because last year the federal government awarded nearly $78 billion in contracts to small businesses and nearly $23 billion to small disadvantaged businesses.  During the same period of time, the Department of Labor awarded over $575 million in contracts to small businesses and nearly $220 million to small disadvantaged businesses.

75 percent of the Labor Department’s procurement is for the operation, construction and maintenance of Job Corps Centers.  These centers train nearly 65,000 students each year in 122 Job Corps centers in 48 states, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.  Since the mission of the Job Corps is to help at-promise youth, the expertise offered by traditionally underserved communities is especially important.

During this conference, the Department’s Office of Small Business Programs is distributing a new, expanded version of its booklet Doing Business with the U.S. Department of Labor.  It describes the tools companies need to navigate the federal procurement system more quickly, efficiently and successfully.  In addition, this booklet provides information that is applicable to contracting with all federal agencies.

Please be sure to take one of these booklets!

Whatever opportunity interests you, it is important to understand the internal and external environment in which the federal government operates.  The federal government serves many different stakeholders, so it helps to keep up to date with the political, economic, and social events that impact opportunities in this sector.

This conference also has something for individuals.  It offers many resources to help individuals in transition navigate successfully from one profession to another.  And no group is more worthy or more deserving of our help than our nation’s returning veterans, who are transitioning back into the civilian workforce.  So we have created a very special workshop for veterans.  We were approached by veterans’ organizations that told us that some of our returning vets want to start small businesses, but they’re not sure what resources are available to them.  So as part of this conference, there is a workshop on how to expedite small business loans for veterans.  Our men and women in uniform have sacrificed so much in defense of this nation.  We can never repay our debt to them.  But we can help ensure that they succeed in civilian life when they return.

There is also increasing interest in exploring opportunities to serve Americans with disabilities.  So this conference again includes a workshop to familiarize participants with this important market and how to reach out to this community.

These are just a few examples of the many ways the Department has expanded its outreach to traditionally underserved communities — including Americans with disabilities, veterans, and faith-based and community organizations.
Our goal each year is to make this conference as beneficial as possible for all participants.  And so, feedback is extremely important.  Please let us know your opinion of the workshops you attend and your ideas on how we can better serve your needs at future conferences.

Now, permit me to share a few words with you on the importance of diversity and why your contributions are so important in keeping our country strong.  When I first came to America over 40 years ago, my family and I were very often the only Asian Pacific American family in town.  We were often the only Asian Pacific Americans in whatever we did — on the street, in school, in just about any function at all.  But, today, America is much more diverse.  That’s a tremendous asset to America as America becomes increasingly part of a worldwide economy.

So it’s not necessary to sublimate one’s heritage in order to succeed in mainstream America. Our time has come.  Americans of different cultural backgrounds help others understand other cultures, which helps our country maintain and enhance its economic competitiveness in the world.  And opportunities for those who are sensitive to cultural differences and cultural nuances are growing every day.  And what better way to engage the world than to have the input of people from all over the world.

Let me also share some thoughts about successfully accessing new opportunities.

First, in America, there is no one path to advancement but it’s important to find your own.  Many people ask me, What is the key to success?  We came as a family, knowing so little, and we drew upon the advice and counsel of our fellow church members and neighbors.  They helped my family understand how to get by in America.  Of course, hard work increases the chances that we will reach our goals.  But, there are no guarantees.  So it’s important to broaden your horizon, take calculated risks and break out of your comfort zone. America has so many opportunities, which hopefully this conference will help you learn about.  Often, the greatest challenge is to find your own path to what you want to do.  Finding your own path is often the most difficult and compelling challenge we face.

Second, don’t be afraid if mistakes happen.  Very few mistakes are fatal.  Of course, we should all try to avoid making mistakes. We all make mistakes, and if a mistake does occur, don’t be discouraged.  America is the land of second chances.  Very few mistakes are truly fatal.  If something doesn’t work out, try again. There will be new opportunities if one never gives up.

And third, America is a democracy.  We cannot compel others to use our goods and services.  Good communications skills are critical — both oral and written to persuade others to take in interest in what your enterprise or organization has to offer.  More and more business is being transacted over the Internet, which encourages communication shortcuts.  But in accessing public sector opportunities, a strong, well-written proposal and a good oral presentation are critical factors in success.  And as our country becomes more diverse, the ability to communicate clearly is more important than ever before.

My experiences growing up taught me that anything is possible in America if you work hard and never give up.  Today’s conference participants have extraordinary drive and a courageous spirit that has already helped them.  Looking around, I see entrepreneurs and leaders of faith based and community organizations who want to reach the next level of their achievement.  We all come from different backgrounds, but we share a willingness to continue on a path to even greater achievement that is distinctly American.  As you take those next steps using the information and tools gained at this conference, I hope you will spread the news to many others about the tremendous resources available to help them access new opportunities and grow.

So thank you for everything you are doing to create hope and opportunity for others.  And thank you for what you are doing to ensure that the benefits of our freedom and prosperity are shared by all.

Enjoy the rest of the conference!
P. O. Box 1118
Washington, D. C. 20013
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