By Angel Rodriguez

Over the last 25 years, entrepreneurs have reinvented the cup of coffee, built the ultimate hardware store, made a world of information searchable, and shown us that a thoughtful, committed capitalist can change the world.

America's 23 million entrepreneurs - of all races, ages, and sexes - prove that there are no insurmountable obstacles on a road of possibility. They personify the future, creating most of our economy's new jobs and accounting for variations in wages across regions. Growing entrepreneurship here at home, in every corner of our city, is our most important economic challenge.

Where does Philadelphia stand?

We have a history of entrepreneurship. Ben Franklin set up his printing press and created the American brand. Nobody bakes a cake as tasty as a Tastykake. Manny, Moe and Jack keep us on the road. Comcast needs a skyscraper to run its businesses. Urban Outfitters is outfitting the country. Independent contractors are rebuilding the city.

But Philadelphia outperformed only Detroit among the nation's 15 largest metro areas in 2005, according to the Index of Entrepreneurial Activity by the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. It has 180 entrepreneurs per 100,000 adults, compared with Detroit's 160. New York, which has a business tax burden similar to Philadelphia's, had 330.

A Harvard University Business School study of business start-up activity in inner-city neighborhoods in 2004 ranked Philadelphia 80th of the 82 U.S. inner cities with populations greater than 50,000. Los Angeles, which taxes businesses' gross receipts, ranked 45th.

Although Pennsylvania is typically well-represented on the Inc. 500 list, an annual ranking of the country's fastest-growing private companies, there hasn't been a Philadelphia company on the list since 2001.

To stimulate entrepreneurial activity, we need to transform our perspective. In building a culture of entrepreneurship, all of us have vital roles to play.

What can we do?

Embrace risk and experimentation.

Focus on opportunities, not challenges. Whether hawking T-shirts from the back of a van or Internet connections from a Center City high-rise, entrepreneurship drives prosperity.

Recognize that strong entrepreneurial activity breeds a strong economy. We need to better understand the nature and behavior of entrepreneurial activity. Entrepreneurs themselves can take the lead by serving as mentors, advisers, or even investors for other entrepreneurs. As regional ambassadors for entrepreneurship, business owners can work together with high schools, colleges, universities, nonprofits, government, the media, and the general public to legitimize entrepreneurship as a career path.

Understand that all companies in all industries must employ advanced technology and be knowledge-intensive. Government, nonprofits and civic organizations can and must work together to coordinate support for entrepreneurship and incubation of companies, regardless of industry. As Harvard economist Michael Porter notes, productivity rests not with the industries we compete in, but how the sum of companies in a given region competes.

Celebrate success - and failure. The news media can spotlight entrepreneurs whose determination and experimentation make great stories. Dedicating a weekly column or segment to local companies whose reach extends to places such as China or the Middle East, for example, would capture viewers and inspire more entrepreneurial activity.

Our mayor and other elected officials can focus on entrepreneurs, especially when it is time to nominate companies for the Inc. 500 list and other opportunities for national recognition.

Recently, we celebrated Philadelphia Entrepreneurship Week, bringing together aspiring and existing business owners, their employees and the organizations that support them. Risk and experimentation shaped our past. Whose ideas are building our future?

Angel Rodriguez is executive director of the Empowerment Group (www.empowerment-group.org), a nonprofit organization based in West Kensington.