By Amy Klobuchar

By most accounts, 1902 wasn't the best year to start a business. The American economy was entering a recession in the wake of a stock market crash the year before. Despite these economic shadows, a few hopeful Minnesotans braved the risks to pursue their dreams of starting a business.

In Two Harbors, a group of men got together to mine rock for industrial abrasives. While their original mining plan didn't work out, they did succeed in producing and selling sandpaper, which led to other products.

Meanwhile, in downtown Minneapolis, George Draper Dayton decided to open a dry goods store in a new building on Nicollet Avenue. It was to be the first of many.

A century later, these two businesses are among the most successful and innovative in the world. They're Minnesota icons, known today as the 3M Company and Target Corporation.

Of course, few businesses grow up to be so large. But every business, big or small, needs a fair chance to succeed.

Minnesota has more than 120,000 small businesses (those with fewer than 500 employees). They account for more than half of Minnesota's private-sector employment, and their job growth rate exceeds that of large businesses.

Nationally, small businesses were responsible for an estimated 64 percent of net new jobs created in the past 15 years.

Right now, many small businesses are struggling. Credit is scarce, and so are customers. Yet the American economy won't recover until our small businesses recover.

As chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Competitiveness, Innovation and Export Promotion, I'm working to see that our small businesses get better access to the financial capital they need, as well as the chance to expand into new markets.

The financial crisis has dried up the flow of capital, and it's harder for small businesses to get loans. However, folks should know that of the 10 top banks for small-business lending, Minnesota-based U.S. Bancorp was one of two that have actually increased their small-business lending since last April. There are definitely some banks out there doing their part.

We should encourage more to follow in their footsteps. According to a November report by the Treasury Department, the 22 banks that received the most funding through the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) actually cut their small business lending by $10.5 billion during the previous six months.

Recently, the president announced new initiatives to shore up lending for America's small businesses.

It's about time Main Street got a portion of the TARP funds. Specifically, I would like to see a targeted program with up to $40 billion in TARP money leveraging private investment to increase the flow of credit to small businesses with the help of our community banks.

Access to affordable credit is necessary but not sufficient for businesses to grow. They also need access to markets. Some of the best market opportunities, now and in the future, are outside the U.S.

While large companies like Cargill are well known for their international business success, many small businesses also have the potential to succeed in overseas markets

It's literally a world of opportunity, with more than 95 percent of the world's customers outside the U.S. According to a recent survey, 30 percent of U.S. businesses that don't export indicate that they would consider exporting if they had more information about how to go about doing it.

Last fall, I chaired a hearing in Washington on how federal agencies can better assist small businesses in exporting their products and services. There are a number of federal agencies — such as the Commerce Department and the Export-Import Bank — that assist U.S. companies in promoting their products abroad. They have expertise and experience to help small businesses navigate their way into these export markets, sometimes even matching up companies and markets like a trade-related ""

At the hearing, we featured the success story of Mattracks, located in the northwestern Minnesota community of Karlstad. The company produces rubber track systems that convert 4x4 vehicles into all-terrain vehicles. After receiving export assistance from the U.S. Commerce Department, Mattracks now gets half of its business from international sales in more than 50 countries.

The problem is that staffing at the Commerce Department for export promotion has declined. I'm now working to get that corrected and to remove other hurdles that stand in the way of small businesses that want to export.

In the current economy, it's more important than ever for our businesses to know about all potential opportunities, whether at home or abroad.

It's impossible to know what Minnesota small businesses of today might grow into the 3M or Target of tomorrow. But we do know that all businesses need fair access to financial credit and a fair chance to expand their markets.

It's not just about the success of our small businesses. It's about the success of our whole economy.

Amy Klobuchar, a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, has represented Minnesota in the U.S. Senate since 2007.