“When I was a young professional working in tech companies in Silicon Valley, it never occurred to me to get involved in local government,” says Mark Dwight, founder and owner of Rickshaw Bagworks.
“I didn’t know anything about the chamber of commerce, I didn’t know anything about my local government supervisors, and I didn’t have any notion that there was legislation that might affect business.”
Dwight, a 2014 recipient of the California Chamber of Commerce Small Business Advocate of the Year Award, gained a new perspective upon going into business, first as CEO and part-owner of local bag-maker Timbuk2 Designs (2002–2006), and eventually as founder and sole owner of Rickshaw Bagworks in 2007.
“I learned that what goes on at City Hall can affect my business and my bottom line, so it became clear to me that I needed to get involved,” Dwight says. “Owning my own business, starting my own company here at Rickshaw, and ultimately being the only owner here really became my platform for not only community engagement, but also civic engagement.”
At Rickshaw, Dwight oversees a team of 30 in operations and production who manufacture and sell custom messenger bags, backpacks, tote bags and assorted accessories. The business, located in the Dogpatch district of San Francisco, is open seven days a week, and Dwight often refers to Rickshaw as living at the intersection of bags and bikes, as much of its clientele are urban commuters and cyclists.
The Bay Area native worked for 20 years for high tech companies in Silicon Valley, including a four-year stint (1997–2001) at Cisco Systems before embarking on his own business endeavors.
Dwight’s current business community roles include being on the San Francisco Small Business Commission, the Board of Directors at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and a member of Potrero Hill Dogpatch Merchant Association.
In addition, Dwight’s innovative, business-minded perspective led to him founding SFMade, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that focuses on building, developing and promoting the local manufacturing sector in San Francisco.
In 2004, he was recommended to a volunteer committee at City Hall, then in 2012, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee named Dwight to the Small Business Commission, where he continues crusading for the needs of small businesses and micro-manufacturers.
“I think there’s a shortage of people that really get involved,” Dwight says. “There are lots of people who love to talk on the sidelines after decisions are made and talk about how it should have been different or how nobody at City Hall is listening to them or nobody knows what’s going on, but those people are not at the table when those decisions are being made.”
Small Business Advocacy
Dwight exudes a strong enthusiasm for his work and advocacy, and is quick to point out that there is an important call to action for small business owners.
“If you don’t have a small business advocacy group, then start one,” Dwight says. “If you do have one, join it, whether it’s a small business network or the chamber of commerce. Join a business organization in your city where leaders and businesses are getting together to discuss the important issues and then advocate on behalf of business at City Hall, locally, at the state level, and at the national level.”
‘Keep Working at It’
Dwight says advocacy makes a difference, even though it can be hard to see progress in a given moment.
“I’ve just been through this big long debate about minimum wage in San Francisco, and honestly, the outcome has been one that doesn’t really reflect all of the requests that were made by small business,” Dwight says. “So there’s a lot of angst about that right now, but the outcome is better than what might have happened. So sometimes it’s just incremental change, and you can’t really see it in the moment, but you’ve gotta have faith and you’ve gotta keep working at it.”
San Francisco businesses were faced with the prospect of competing ballot measures to increase the minimum wage, with the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) backing a measure to increase the local minimum wage from $10.74 to $15 an hour over several years. (The current state minimum wage is $9 an hour.)
Dwight says Mayor Lee and others were able to convince SEIU to drop its proposed measure, allowing a single measure with a more reasonable four-year timeline for the increase.
Doing business in San Francisco is a challenge, Dwight acknowledges.
“We have the highest minimum wage in the country,” Dwight says. “We have mandated PTO [paid time off]. We have onerous taxes and regulations. Not to mention one of the most expensive real estate environments in the country. So all of those things added together make San Francisco the most expensive, if not the most hostile city in the United States for small business.”
Nonetheless, Dwight’s strong, entrepreneurial spirit keeps him hopeful for the future.
“What I’m encouraged by is the renaissance in micro-manufacturing and the use of technology and the use of marketing and innovative business tactics to carve out niches in manufactured goods,” Dwight says. “I think there’s something important about making stuff. It’s a classic American notion of self-reliance.”
Dwight takes pride in his efforts to bring manufacturing back to the city.
“I’ve just been thrilled to make a contribution,” Dwight says. “It’s a worthwhile endeavor, that’s for sure.”