If you missed Tom Friedman's OpEd piece in The New York Times yesterday on why the Obama administration needs to focus on youth entrepreneurship, please read it here right now. Go ahead; I'll wait. Friedman suggests that President Obama seems to have all but forgotten the "amazing, young, Internet-enabled, grass-roots movement he mobilized to get elected." I couldn't agree more. Sure, there was a meeting of young entrepreneurs at the White House last March, organized by Elliott Bisnow, founder of the Summit Series. In attendance: Jake Nickell (Threadless); Tony Hsieh (Zappos); Aaron Patzer (Mint.com); Evan Williams (Twitter), and 25 or so others. But what has the administration done since then to engage this incredibly entrepreneurial generation? Not much, as far as I can tell.
Yes, we need health care reform and we certainly must put some regulatory reins back on the financial sector, but most of all, we need to create jobs by stimulating the creation of new companies. And while organizations like the Kauffman Foundation, for which I have great respect, claim that the majority of new entrepreneurial firms are started by people in their 40s, I think a strong case can be made for devoting significant resources to young entrepreneurs. First of all, we know that they are a generation of serial entrepreneurs. Over 75% of the entrepreneurs I interviewed for my book, Upstarts! said that they were very or highly likely to start another company; most had already founded two or more. Why does this matter? Because practice makes perfect and by the time they're in their forties, many of these young business owners will have several start-ups under their belts, having learned as much if not more from their inevitable failures as from their successes. And that will help them grow into an exceptional generation of entrepreneurial leaders.
I'm not the only one who thinks so. Last month, I had the incredible privilege of having tea with Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts, founder of the Leader to Leader Institute, and now the Chair for the Study of Leadership at West Point (she's the first woman appointee and the first non-graduate of West Point to hold the position). Ms. Hesselbein, who Peter Drucker described as one of the greatest leaders he had ever met, knows leadership when she sees it. And she told me with great enthusiasm that she views the current generation of cadets at West Point as the most promising group of future leaders she has ever met. Why? "They understand the importance of service," she said. And she wasn't talking just about service to one's country, but to communities in general. "The first thing they want to tell you about is the volunteer work they're doing," she said. I found the same to be to be true among the young entrepreneurs I interviewed for my book: 70% said their companies had a social mission. But make no mistake: they're laser-focused on the bottom line as well and they understand why growing a profitable, sustainable company that creates jobs is a social good in and of itself. It's pretty clear to me: this is a generation worth investing in.
So, back to Friedman, who suggests that the best thing President Obama could do is to "bring together the country's leading innovators and ask them: What legislation, what tax incentives, do we need right now to replicate you all a million times over?" He also mentions two youth entrepreneurship programs that are worthy of being replicated: National Lab Day, which pairs scientists and engineers with budding student inventors; and The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) which teaches entrepreneurship to low-income kids. He might have also included Junior Achievement's new Be Entrepreneurial program, which is focused on helping high school students start their own businesses. And what about funding/incubating programs like TechStars and YCombinator? Both organizations receive hundreds of applications every year but can only accommodate a few promising young entrepreneurs. Is there some way that government can support and/or offer incentives to spur the creation of similar programs?
I know there's a strong contingency out there that believes government should simply step aside and let entrepreneurs do what they do best with minimal interference from inside the Beltway. And maybe in the best of times, that works. But we're in crisis mode now, so I stand with Friedman and his call to President Obama to help ignite a youth entrepreneurship movement. I think our future economic growth depends on it. What about you?
DONNA FENN is the author of Upstarts! How Gen-Y 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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