Business and politics rarely mix. Small-business owner Jenna Sheingold learned this the hard way early in the Trump era.
A dinner party she was invited to shortly after the 2016 election quickly soured when the discussion turned to politics. Conversation became heated, almost confrontational, and her host refused to change the topic, despite Sheingold's insistence.
The party was meant to celebrate a successful project between Sheingold, a 28-year-old owner of a Portland, Oregon-based interior design firm, and her host, a contractor. But Sheingold, who describes herself as "left-leaning," stopped doing business with the contractor because she could no longer trust the contractor's ability to respect other's feelings. "If I recommend someone, that is saying a lot to my clients that they should be able to trust and feel comfortable working with someone," she said.
Sheingold's approach has sometimes worried friends and family. "It's something I had to discuss with my husband and close friend of mine. They both voiced concerns that being very outward with my political views, I would lose clients or not have clients. And I told them I have a choice with whom I work with and the values of people I work with."
She continues to remain open about her and her company's politics. "If you don't carry your values through every aspect of your life, what do you stand for?" Sheingold said.
Business owners being forced to define their stance
In an era of divisive politics, small-business owners are increasingly forced to define where they stand, before it defines them. But many, especially in the under-35 demographic, are opting to take an approach opposite to Sheingold and ignore politics.
"We do not talk about politics," said Ishveen Anand, the 32-year-old CEO and founder of OpenSponsorship. Her company connects brands with professional athletes and sports teams. A citizen of the U.K., she tries to stay as apolitical as possible because of the immense baggage it carries. "If voting or supporting one side or the other didn't have social implications and was just purely for policy reasons, I think that's fine," said Anand. "It's really the social implication of supporting one side or the other that has changed."
Anand expects the same apolitical approach out of her employees while in the office. "We're a VC start-up. Funding can dry up temporarily, based on the political nature [of discussions]."
A recent CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey shows that small-business owners under 35 are more likely to identify themselves as independents (39 percent) than as Republicans (27 percent) or Democrats (31 percent).
However, most also describe their views as conservative (37 percent) as opposed to moderate (26 percent) and liberal (14 percent). And less young business owners register to vote as compared to the 84 percent and upward registration percentages for every other age group surveyed.
The results also reveal some level of disenchantment with government that is greater than among older business owners, who tend to believe government regulations will have a positive effect. Fifty-two percent of business owners under 35 said government regulations will have no effect on their business in the next 12 months, versus only 25 percent of owners 65 and older who hold that view.
Experts believe the disconnect between younger owners and politics has a strong business rationale. "When you're younger, you're all in on this; it's head down," said Vincent Ponzo, managing director of the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center at Columbia Business School. "You're not thinking about running for office. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, every day, every night, 24-7 every day, it's all about your business."
In the next 12 months, do you expect your business’s revenue to increase, stay the same, or decrease?
65 and over
Stay the same30%40%
CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey, Q2 2017, subsets of respondents by age group
Younger business owners are more likely to have a positive outlook on business: Under-35 owners tend to describe current conditions as good or middling for business, while older owners tend to say conditions are middling or bad for business, according to the CNBC/SurveyMonkey poll. Younger owners are also more optimistic: The 62 percent of respondents under 35 who expect revenue to increase over the next year was the highest percentage among all age groups in the survey.
A moderated approach
Ricky Klein of Groennfell Meadery keeps his business strictly apolitical, except when it comes to social issues that he believes transcend politics. "There are a handful of political things that we don't believe are political, whether it is human-caused climate change or water pollution. We fundamentally believe the environment is not political."
He and his wife, CEO Kelly Klein, modeled their Vermont brewery and restaurant after Nordic mead halls that focus on bringing people together. But politicians are not allowed to canvas or hold events. "You are an individual first and a politician second," said Klein. "You are welcome to bring your views, but you are not welcome to bring malicious intent," Klein said. He added, "We are not Democrats; we are not Republicans. We do not subscribe to the political dichotomy."
Maria Patterson, an assistant clinical professor at NYU's Stern School of Business, considers a political approach an important part of growing a business. "It's absolutely critical for businesses to make a considered decision of what are our values," she said. "Once you determine what your values are in business, then you make decisions of what kind of engagements you'll make in the political arena."
Patterson says small businesses eventually grow large enough to affect the community and, by extension, politics and policy. "At some point a business has got to understand, whether it likes it or not, there are tools that business can use to affect the political process."
Microsoft famously shunned corporate lobbying until they were hit with an antitrust suit from the U.S. government. "There comes a point where, as a business person, you need to understand what the tools are and how you can use them and use them responsibly," Patterson said.
Some, like 19-year-old Neel Somani, the owner of tech consulting firm Apptic in California, find it impossible to wait. "I don't go actively seeking out [business] because of my political views, but I definitely don't draw the line between the two," he said. Being political is good business, he said, because it provides common ground that lets clients feel more comfortable and communicative. "People are more willing to share their ideas," he added.
— By Mike Juang, special to CNBC.com