Obama Team Holds Business Summit In Cleveland

President Obama is looking to small business to play a big role in the nation's economic recovery. The president and several members of his cabinet travel to Cleveland to meet with entrepreneurs on Tuesday.

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The drama across the Arab world comes at a moment when President Obama would rather be focusing on rebuilding the U.S. economy. The president is traveling to Cleveland today, along with several members of his cabinet for a meeting with small business owners. They'll be talking about ways to help businesses grow and put more people back to work.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Cleveland inventor Aaron Lemieux got the idea for his small business, Tremont Electric, about a decade ago, while hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Connecticut.

Mr. AARON LEMIEUX (Owner, Tremont Electric): You get a lot of time to think when you backpack 1,500 miles. And I was stopping into towns to purchase batteries to keep my mobile electronic devices recharged.

HORSLEY: Lemieux set out to build a device he could stash in his backpack that would convert the up and down energy of walking into electricity to power a cell phone or an iPod. A patent for that device now hangs in his office in a converted art gallery in Cleveland's funky Tremont neighborhood. On his workbench there's a prototype stamped with bold lettering that says: Built in the U.S.A.

Mr. LEMIEUX: Ninety percent of that product doesn't just come from the United States, it comes from the state of Ohio. This is manufacturing heartland of America. We can build just about anything that we need to here.

HORSLEY: Lemieux's six-person company is one of more than 100 that will be represented today in a meeting with President Obama aimed at improving the climate for small businesses.

On Lemieux's desk, he keeps an electronic writing tablet developed by another local startup. It's called a Boogie Board and uses liquid crystal technology developed at nearby Kent State University.

Mr. LEMIEUX: Sometimes I'd like to say that, you know, we all work in obscurity here in Cleveland, Ohio. You know, a lot of people talk about startups on the East Coast and on the West Coast, but there are a lot of startups in our area.

HORSLEY: The company behind the Boogie Board, Kent Displays, boasts about 100 employees and sells not only in this country but in Asia. Despite that success, CEO Albert Green still wrestles with the problem facing many young companies finding the money for supplies and workers he needs to keep pace with growing demand.

Mr. ALBERT GREEN (CEO, Kent Displays): You know, if you're a large company, you know, you probably have that money in the bank and it's no problem. If you're a small company that - you know, kind of a startup like we are - they're just not interested in lending any kind of money for that kind of stuff. Banks will basically lend you money if you don't need it.

HORSLEY: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will lead a discussion of the problem in Cleveland today. The administration's tried repeatedly to encourage small business lending with limited success so far.

Here in Northeast Ohio, a non-profit group called Jumpstart has provided about $20 million in seed money to about 50 companies. Jumpstart's leader, Ray Leach, says the group also supplies mentors to help counsel would-be entrepreneurs. That's important in a region where the economy was long dominated by aging industrial giants, not startups.

Mr. RAY LEACH (Jumpstart): In many parts of the country, there aren't a lot of people who have started a company and grown it to 50 million, 100 million, you know, 500 million dollars in revenue. And while the money is important, the practical expertise and experience is as important, in some cases even more important than the money.

HORSLEY: The Obama administration hopes to duplicate the Jumpstart model nationwide. And over the next few months the Small Business Administration plans to host a series of roundtables around the country aimed at lowering barriers and encouraging small business growth.

Meanwhile, hiker and inventor Aaron Lemieux is looking ahead to his next product: a buoy that would produce electricity from ocean waves. Launching a small business is a little like hiking the Appalachian Trail, he says: Sometimes it rains five days in a row, but then you're blessed with a beautiful rainbow.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Cleveland.

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