Earlier this week, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a roundtable luncheon at the Chicago Tribune.  The topic was small business in Chicago, and while IBM itself is anything but small, we do routinely work with small businesses.  I know, the market perception is otherwise, but across IBM, the Express Advantage offerings -- hardware, software, services -- are all designed for companies with less than 1000 employees, and our own tools like Lotus Foundations or LotusLive scale down to single and double digit numbers.  

In some ways, I was at the lunch to hear what was on the minds of small business owners and advocates throughout Chicago.  Though I was invited in part because of my contributing columnist role in the Chicago Tribune's TribLocal Highland Park, I chose to lead with my IBM executive identity only as I was introduced to the Tribune reporters and other guests.  Eventually, I was outed by an editor who thought my name looked familiar, and, interestingly, from that point forward, I was like a new best friend to many of the journalists...more than some generic corporate suit from IBM (note, as you'll see in the picture, I chose to go with a modern interpretation of "IBM executive" -- khakis, iPad, etc. -- to try to reset some stereotypes.  The other corporate exec who was there -- well, let's just say he also brought his media relations manager...).

It was interesting to represent "IBM" as a whole in this setting.  It was the first time I was, well, a bit anxious about the whole back of my business card, with references to planetlotus.org and OpenNTF.  I hesitated over words like "cloud computing", though almost everyone in the room had a familiarity with social media.  One interesting wrinkle was that few had contemplated it in a business-to-business context, mostly thinking about social media in the business-to-consumer space.  Perhaps some opportunity comes from that.

There was much swapping of business cards, connecting up on LinkedIn and Twitter, and invitations for coffee.  30 people I had never met before, never even heard of before in all but one case, now wanting to connect.  When the invite came, I didn't really think of it as a networking event -- I thought I was going to talk to the reporters.  Instead I found myself immersed in a rich tapestry of multi-vector thought, around issues of the day -- for the community, the industry, and the future.

When you have lunch with a group of people who set out on their own to run their own small businesses -- or who work with those people all the time -- you are going to hear some passionate conversation. ... Well. The enthusiasm was palpable.

But, of course, small business affects more in American society than small businesses themselves. Jason Rosado's business is coaching other small businesses. Ed Brill, IBM director of product management for Lotus software (NOT a small business), helps craft tools for businesses of all size. Jerry Furby, executive vice presdient of business banking at PNC Bank, helps entrepreneurs to launch. So there was a lot to listen to and consider -- and I know the journalists in the room came away with a lot on their minds.

So, thank you to James Janega for the invitation.  It was well worth the trip downtown, and hopefully it is the start of the conversation, not the end of it.

Link: Chicago Tribune: Trib Nation small business community conversation >

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