The city where entrepreneurship has become contagious

Robert Borberg returned to his native Kansas after sensing opportunity.
Robert Borberg returned to his native Kansas after sensing opportunity.
Image: Adam Glanzman
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The opening of Chiusano’s Brick Oven Pizza, in Kansas City, Kansas, marked the return of a native son. Robert Borberg, who owns and operates the business along with his wife, Nancy, grew up just a few miles south. Back when he left for college, Borberg figured he was leaving the area for good—opportunities were limited, and ambitious young people looked for a way out.

Now Borberg and his family are back, taking part in a stirring renaissance in KCK (as it is known regionally), where entrepreneurship has become contagious. Borberg sold two restaurants he and his wife owned in Colorado and poured everything into opening Chiusano’s in 2012, looking to capitalize on a local boom.

The pizzeria sits on what was once unused land. It’s now surrounded by stores, stadiums, hotels, and high-end housing—the restaurant is part of Village West, a major entertainment and retail development financed by Citi, the global bank, that has given KCK’s fortunes a huge boost. On a day when Sporting Kansas City is playing at their cutting-edge soccer stadium just across the way, fans pour into Chiusano’s. Borberg is sometimes on hand to greet them himself, wearing his own Sporting KC jersey. According to Mike Taylor, a county official, the big attraction at Chiusano’s is pretty simple: “awesome pizza.”

Chiusano’s exemplifies a new era of small-business success in the KCK region. Impressed by the city’s entrepreneurial spirit, Google chose Kansas City, Kansas from among more than a thousand applicants as the launch city for the ultra-high-speed internet service Google Fiber in 2011. The following year, the Kansas City Startup Village, a hub for nimble new tech businesses, emerged in the first neighborhood to get access to the lightning-fast service. Because Village West, a bold initiative for both local leaders and Citi, has succeeded wildly, the project’s debt is due to be paid off five years early and the county government will begin reaping a windfall of consistent sales-tax revenue. That revenue will go to work throughout KCK, fostering an ever-more vibrant home for small business.

Small firms will continue to play a vital role in KCK, just as they do throughout the United States. Every great American business story starts small: an inventor comes up with an idea and sketches it on a scrap of paper; a handful of friends identify a market need and decide that no one can fill it quite like they can; a store owner puts out a sign on day one and watches the clock until the first customer walks in the door.

For all that we hear about the decline of “mom and pop” firms, success stories like these still drive American prosperity. In fact, small businesses account for a growing share, in many respects, of the US economy. Since 1990, while big business has shed about 4 million jobs, small business has added twice that number. The number of small businesses has increased by about half since 1982, and these companies account for 54% of all US sales.

The importance of small business in the US can’t be fully captured on a balance sheet. Entrepreneurship—the drive to do better, achieve more—is a cornerstone of the American dream. The nation’s energy, can-do spirit, and individualistic ethos all find expression whenever a small business is formed.

Take Chiusano’s, in Kansas City, Kansas—the Borberg family saw demand for good pizza at Village West, which has become the leading tourist destination in the state of Kansas. The family showed initiative and took a big risk, wanting to make their own way and leave a mark. There’s nothing more American than that.

This article was produced on behalf of Citi by Quartz creative services and not by the Quartz editorial staff.