How do millennials feel about the current state of the U.S. economy and the system behind it? According to a recent study conducted by Harvard University, which polled young adults between the ages of 18 and 29, not so good: 51 percent of survey respondents said they do not support capitalism, and only 42 percent were in favor of it.
While recent movements such as Occupy Wall Street come to mind, what we're really beginning to see is a clearer divide between those who support the values traditionally associated with America's free market system and those who feel disillusioned by them. Of particular interest is the response from our newest generation of young entrepreneurs, who are discovering that running a successful business and giving back to society are not mutually exclusive acts.
Below, five successful founders and members of Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) -- all under the age of 35 -- weigh in on the survey's findings and its implications for the entrepreneurial ecosystem as we know it.
Social Entrepreneurship Is the New Norm
Matthew Manos, founder of verynice, a design strategy consultancy that gives half of its work away for free to nonprofits, views social entrepreneurship as a welcome response and a working solution to pivoting an economy historically built on turning a profit.
"The rise of social entrepreneurship as a leading trend in the new mainstream entrepreneurial ecosystem is actually a direct result of this new understanding of capitalism's downsides. The beauty of social enterprise, though, is that the practice is not an attack on capitalism. Instead, it is a new [movement] that strives to be holistically responsible."
Manos also commends this generation of entrepreneurs for being more discerning of their business ventures' true gains.
"The entrepreneurial landscape has never been more open-minded. Everyday we are seeing new models of impact emerge that just would not have been possible without the dawn of a more critical consumer, and a more conscious concept of what an enterprise can be. When I first launched [my business], I was almost numb to criticism from traditionally-minded capitalists who frankly thought I was insane for giving half of my work away. Now, generosity is not only an acceptable approach to business--it is actually considered 'cool.' Who saw that coming?"
Instead of Rejecting Capitalism, Millennials Embrace 'Conscious Capitalism'
Brittany Hodak, co-founder of ZinePak, doesn't believe in a flat-out rejection of capitalism altogether, but rather an adoption of a "conscious capitalism" model, in which businesses commit themselves to giving back to the community at large in addition to benefitting from financial gains.
"The idea of 'rejecting' capitalism could lead some first-time entrepreneurs to found focus-first companies, where they're more concerned about helping people than making a profit. Many studies have shown that a majority of millennials value experiences over possessions. A natural progression of this idea is that 'rich' doesn't necessary mean having lots of money. It means freedom of time and schedule to travel, learn, experience, etc. Therefore, an entrepreneur doesn't have to make a million dollars a year to feel like he or she can afford a desired lifestyle."
By deviating from a business model that isn't solely focused on generating revenue, Hodak actively uses her business savvy to assist those in need:
"When money is removed from a business plan as a motive, it's amazing what ideas you can have. I co-founded a charity [Per Diems Against Poverty] about a year ago that, by design, will never make a dime. Instead, I'm actually spending money, because I believe in the cause it represents: helping to end hunger in America. I love that millennials are founding charities and social purpose corporations to help address issues they see with the world."
Millennial Entrepreneurs Are Leading the Charge for a 'Freelance Nation'
Like Hodak, Robby Berthume, CEO and co-founder of Bull and Beard, believes the issue lies not in the execution of capitalism, but rather millennials' perception of it.
"It's not that they don't support capitalism, it's that they don't support what capitalism stands for. Millennials, who strive for political correctness, would prefer not to associate themselves with 'Wall Street' and 'those greedy bankers.' What they don't understand is that capitalism is the bedrock of everything they enjoy as much as everything they don't."
Instead of doing away with the system altogether, Berthume suggests millennials embrace their ability to forge new paths in a way past generations weren't able to achieve. This includes building a solid foundation upon which forthcoming generations can thrive.
"We're becoming a 'freelance nation' in many ways thanks to millennials. They're freelancing, building companies and running the 'new world' through platforms like Facebook, AirBnB, DropBox, Groupon, and the list goes on. Yes, all of those companies were founded and built by millennials. And yes, those companies in many ways are what has helped the U.S. economy rebound from the Great Recession and provide many of the jobs for millennials in the workforce."
A Desire for Change Leads to Creative Problem-Solving
Sunny Bonnell, co-founder of Motto, believes that millennials will be inspired to create positive change instead of simply accepting what's become of our system.
"The view that things need to change undoubtedly puts people in a position to create change. The negative view of capitalism could fuel millennials to attack bigger problems by looking through a wider, more creative lens."
Bonnell can speak from personal experience, as she's made it her mission to embody these guiding principles in her own business.
"As a branding agency, we often work with companies who are socially and consciously minded. The basic understanding for how to be successful in life a few decades ago simply no longer applies. Our capitalist system has opened our eyes to address big, global problems that millennials want to help solve. In many ways, the negative view of capitalism has made our work more meaningful by working with companies such as these."
Today's Entrepreneurs Balance Profit With Purpose
For Diana Goodwin, founder and CEO of AquaMobile Inc., the crux of the challenge millennials face boils down to one question: "Can we have individual prosperity while still improving the standard of living for all?"
"It feels like there is a conflict of knowing that as entrepreneurial ventures grow and succeed, jobs are created, which in turn stimulates the economy. This brings up a concern: is this benefit enough, or are people getting left behind in the prosperity?"
To combat this effect and keep things moving forward in a positive direction, Goodwin reminds all entrepreneurs to keep their mission of why they chose to build a business in the first place close to heart.
"I think that it's important for millennial entrepreneurs to remember that as we grow our businesses and create wealth, we need to ensure that we are supporting society as a whole. Even as AquaMobile continues to grow, we attempt to find this balance by offering a free 'learn to swim' video series online so that we can teach kids all across the country to learn how to swim. I think there can be a balance so that everyone benefits when a company succeeds."