Philanthropists or Narcissists?

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Over the course of researching my book on young entrepreneurs, I've come across the work of several other authors who have written about Generation Y. It's not all flattering, to be sure. Take, for example, Jean Twenge's Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable than Ever Before (2006, Free Press), which claims that a defining characteristic of Gen Y is narcissism.

In a Q&A with U.S. News and World Report, Twenge was asked about other reports that show young people doing more volunteer work than ever. Her response was this: "Volunteering among young people has gone up. However, over that same time, high schools began to require community service. And colleges started to either require, or like to see in applications, volunteer work. ... They're doing this because it's required, not necessarily of their own volition." Hmmm. If that's so, you'd expect the focus on community service and volunteerism to disappear before the ink on the diploma is dry. But that's not what I'm seeing.

I'm astounded by the number of Gen Y entrepreneurs I've interviewed who have integrated a social responsibility element into their fledgling companies. I'll tell you about just one. When Shazi Visram and Jessica Rolph started their frozen organic baby food company, Happy Baby Food, about a year ago, they agreed upon a social mission from day one. For every package sold, Happy Baby would feed a malnourished child in Malawi for a day through a not-for-profit organization called Project Peanut Butter. That commitment was made at the company's launch and continues to be honored. Happy Baby Food's products are now widely distributed in Whole Foods, but make no mistake — financial success was not a prerequisite for this company's philanthropic efforts. As struggling entrepreneurs, it would have been easy for Visram and Rolph to take a "we'll give back when we're profitable" approach. After all, no one was standing over them with a stick.

So what do you think? Is the spirit of philanthropy and volunteerism alive and well in GenY and the companies they start, or are they just a bunch of narcissists?

Last updated: Apr 15, 2008

DONNA FENN | Inc.com Contributing Editor

Donna Fenn is the author of Upstarts! How GenY Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.




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