Judith Cone is Vice President of Emerging Strategies for the Kauffman Foundation, where she leads efforts to explore new program opportunities to advance entrepreneurship and education. In this interview, she provides a unique perspective of the 2008 Top Small Workplaces in terms of what made them stand out from this year’s 35 Finalist firms.

How does your work at the Kauffman Foundation relate to the Top Small Workplaces project and your role as a judge?
You know, it’s such a great fit for the foundation because our founder, Ewing Kauffman, was known for creating a great culture. He had such employee loyalty to him because he treated people the way they wanted to be treated, with dignity and respect. He shared the company and he was just a great cultural builder.

To really demonstrate that, he died in 1993 and he had transmitted ownership of the company back in the late 1980s. And yet today, every year, the ex-employees of Marion Labs get together and celebrate the experience that they had working at this great company with a leader who understood people and how to create an environment to get the most out of them.

What are some things that stand out in this year’s Finalist pool when it comes to entrepreneurship?
This year’s Finalist pool is very diverse. Some are in some tough industries; others are in ones that are less challenging. But you see that people meet the different industry challenges very creatively. And, of course, the judges were looking for companies that brought something unique and creative in the way they deal with employees, and having a work environment that really engages people.

I think when you see list of the 15 Winners that we chose [to be announced in The Wall Street Journal on October 13, 2008 –Ed.], you’ll be amazed at the diversity of industry there is. But the commonality in them is that they all bring innovation and a real commitment to the employee.

What made the Winners stand out from the rest of the Finalists?
I look at profitability and growth because at the end of the day if you can’t stay in business, you do no one any good. To me the greatest social good that anyone can bring is creating a sustainable job that pays well and has benefits. That allows you to have choice and the opportunity to direct your own life. To me that’s the greatest thing, and actually Mr. Kauffman always said, “Of all the things I ever did, creating great jobs is the thing I’m most proud of.”

How do you figure out, when you’re reading all the applications, when everyone is painting themselves in a very positive light, what’s real and what’s not?
The way this is organized by Winning Workplaces is very helpful because it’s not just that write-up by the companies. There are a lot of behind-the-scenes interviews and due diligence. Those interviews make the story come to life, because those are almost the demonstrations of what the companies have said. So there’s a lot more information and we have access to that as judges. And we do read all that background. It’s pretty clear after you read these after several years which are just hype and which are real.

What’s the biggest challenge for you as a Top Small Workplaces judge?
There are so many great applicants so it is very difficult. The 15 that get selected and highlighted are representative – they’re not the only ones. We had to pass on some outstanding companies.

So often major press coverage centers upon the very large, multinational firms. What’s the significance of small business to our economy?
You know, almost every business starts small. Take H&R Block – the tax guys. They started in one shop, a little storefront. Hallmark cards – they started selling postcards for a penny. Our founder, Mr. Kauffman, started grinding oyster shells in his basement to make Os-Cal vitamins, which he created.

So you peel back the layers of multinationals and you’re going to get to startups. We’re just championing them earlier than when we all become aware of them. And not all of these companies are going to grow to that level, but most of these companies started small. So it’s very important to champion great practices in small businesses.