Scott Gerber, Founder,
Young Entrepreneur Council
In 2010, a group of successful young founders banded together to form a grassroots movement and mentor aspiring entrepreneurs. The Great Recession was wreaking havoc on young adults, who were twice as likely to be unemployed.1 The men and women who had started companies like LivingSocial, Mint.com, and HootSuite were suddenly in a unique position: They could offer counsel to their Gen Y peers that no one else could—or would.
What began as a loosely affiliated group of do-gooders is now known as the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invitation-only nonprofit comprised of nearly 400 of America’s top entrepreneurs under thirty-five. We have since mentored tens of thousands of young people around the world, from the United States to Egypt. In doing so, we’ve seen solutions to the epidemics of youth un-and underemployment firsthand. Now, along with dozens of supporters and partners, we are launching a national campaign to #FixYoungAmerica—for good.
Our urgency is real. The United States government is being strangled by partisan politics. Youth employment is at a sixty-year low—only 54.3 percent of young adults aged eighteen to twenty-four have a job at all, the lowest percentage since the government started keeping track in 1948.2 And student loan debt just topped $1 trillion, with default rates rising quickly.
Yet young Americans are far more optimistic and entrepreneurial than the pundits would have you believe. According to a 2011 youth entrepreneurship survey conducted by Buzz Marketing Group and the YEC, 23 percent of America’s young people started a business as a result of being unemployed. Fifteen percent started their business in college.3 And let’s not forget our veterans, who are twice as likely as other Americans to own businesses.4
So why are so few politicians, pundits and decision makers building on that entrepreneurial energy as a solution to joblessness and economic malaise? From the Arab Spring to the Tea Party, from Occupy Wall Street to the SOPA and PIPA protests, we’ve seen what like-minded individuals can achieve. And it’s high time we funneled that same energy into something positive—namely, rebuilding an entrepreneurial America.
This book is not the end-all, be-all compendium of solutions— far from it. The solutions in this book mark the beginning of an important conversation, one we wanted to play a role in starting. By opening the door and leading with solutions (instead of negativity), we hope to create the momentum needed for long-term change. In that spirit, we will continue to solicit hundreds of new solutions as part of an ongoing national campaign.
In the pages that follow, leaders who are actually in the trenches making youth entrepreneurship possible share their key fi ndings, best practices, and battle-tested solutions. Our intention is to share these with the decision makers capable of implementing and scaling them across America.
Neither YEC’s members nor the authors in this book are willing to allow this generation to fl ounder—but we need your help to execute our solutions. Here’s how.
Integrate Academia and the Real World
In the 2011 YEC/Buzz Marketing Group survey, 88 percent of young people said that entrepreneurship education is vitally important given the new economy—and yet 74 percent of college students had no access to entrepreneurship resources on campus. When resources were available, most students felt they were woefully inadequate.5
This is not acceptable—in the twenty-first century, entrepreneurial thinking isn’t just for entrepreneurs. Adaptability, creativity and financial literacy are core skills for American employees and intrapreneurs, too. They’re also critical assets to our communities. Junior Achievement and the Aspen Institute found that youth-entrepreneurship programs positively impacted dropout rates and community engagement, not to mention the development of success-oriented attitudes of risk-taking and opportunity recognition.6 But most employers today think high school and college graduates are seriously deficient in entrepreneurial skills like leadership and innovation,7 and we face a significant shortfall of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates.8
If we actually want to change the way Americans work, then our K-12 schools, community colleges and four-year colleges must pair book learning with real-world practicum. Babson, Cogswell Poly-technical College, Junior Achievement, the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE) and the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), among others, are leading the way.
Eliminate Government Barriers
Even our deadlocked Congress has found bipartisan compromises in entrepreneurship-related legislation, like the recent passage of the JOBS Act. But gridlock is preventing truly decisive action. From adopting self-employment assistance programs in all states to providing federal student loan forgiveness for young entrepreneurs, we need government at all levels to nurture its most valuable resource better.
The Obama administration’s Startup America agenda is a step, but we must demand a bolder pro-growth agenda. To start with, let’s pass the Youth Entrepreneurship Act, which would defer or forgive student loan debt for young entrepreneurs using the precedent set by the Income-Based Repayment program, signed into law by President George W. Bush and extended by President Obama.9 And let’s pass legislation like the VET Act of 2011, so our returning vets can use GI benefits to start businesses.10
An overwhelming 88 percent of young people feel that the government does not support them.11 It is our duty to hold our representatives accountable. We can begin by asking them to stop handicap-ping the youth-owned startups of tomorrow.
Invest in and Mentor Young Entrepreneurs
Initiatives like the Startup America Partnership and Dell’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence program are models for the private sector. Business leaders can team up with accelerators, venture funds, campus groups, regional leadership and nonprofits to mentor, finance, and train the next generation of high-growth company leaders.
Or they can help pave the way for the next public software engineering schools, as Union Square Ventures VC Fred Wilson did in New York. Franchisors can extend special financing to youth and veterans—after all, direct economic output in the franchise sector is projected to grow 5 percent in 2012, and employment, 2.1 percent.12 And we need to openly encourage our young people to start their careers in startups, which generate all net job growth—so those companies keep growing, and young people learn to thrive in the new economy.13
Finally, we need to start creating common-sense avenues for financial support. Microloan financiers like Kiva are easing global unemployment throughout the developing world—why can’t we do more of the same thing here? Frankly, improving access to capital doesn’t necessarily start with banks—having robust mentorship and other non-financial support doubles the likelihood that a young entrepreneur will be approved for a commercial loan.14
Teach Tech in and out of the Classroom
The Web has revolutionized the way we do business today, creating a far more level playing field for young entrepreneurs—provided they have the skill set to take advantage of it. Young entrepreneurs who are well-versed in software engineering, design and code have an instant leg up on their peers. One study found that small-to-medium businesses with strong Web presences grew twice as fast as those with only a minimal presence (or none at all), and created twice the number of jobs.15
We need to prepare all young people for this reality, and arm them with the tools they need to grow businesses (or become valued employees and intrapreneurs). In the classroom, this means we need to teach hands-on computer software engineering, not just computing basics—the Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting an employment increase for software engineers of 32 percent by 2018.16 Outside the classroom, companies like Code cade my fill gaps in K-12 and college education by creating peer-to-peer platforms where aspiring coders learn by doing.
Foster Entrepreneurship at the Regional Level
Not all solutions fit all communities. From a grassroots perspective, one of the most valuable takeaways in this book is that our communities must do a better job of connecting their own thinkers and doers. Cities facing economic decline need to create resource-rich networks that help young entrepreneurs cut through red tape and bureaucracy at the local level, so entrepreneurs don’t depart en masse. The Idea Village in New Orleans has helped sustain over one thousand jobs and $83 million in revenue by retaining and supporting the city’s entrepreneurs.
Underserved regions must find new ways to develop ecosystems in which idea exchange, growth, and financial support are readily available. From Silicon Prairie to New Orleans, entrepreneurs are bridging gaps between local government, investors, and backyard entrepreneurs. These hyper-local networks provide the momentum Americans need to get new businesses off the ground immediately.
How to #FixYoungAmerica
Let’s stop telling our young people they are the future, and give them the resources they need to succeed today. It is our moral, financial and patriotic duty to support new job creation, which is why the YEC and dozens of partners have joined together to #FixYoungAmerica. If we, as a nation, succeed—and succeed we must—we will help restore the American dream to millions of young people. Not every entrepreneur will create a high-growth company, but increasing America’s entrepreneur population by as little as 1 to 2 percent would create tens of thousands of needed jobs. This is not about making life easier for Millennials. It’s about ensuring that, when they become the thirty-, forty-and fifty-something leaders of tomorrow, they will have the capacity and ability to lead America forward.
In buying this book, you are actively participating in this new national conversation. Your contribution enables us to take our message on the road and influence the decision makers where they are. And as our campaign progresses, we will announce new supporters, media partnerships, book topics, and solutions—including yours, if you share it with us.
What I am asking you for today is this: ten minutes of your time. Yes, I know how big an ask that is—but I also know we’re on the brink of real change. So on behalf of the YEC, please help us fix America by sharing our campaign on social media and emailing your friends, colleagues, families, mentors, and elected officials to ask them to join our movement. More importantly, share your proposed solutions with us—so we can execute them together. Visit www.FixYoungAmerica.com now to find out how.