Recent encounters with a number of driven young entrepreneurs makes me realize their generation sees the world of business in a very different way, creatively combining the pursuit of profits with a new global awareness and desire to change the world.
Every generation likes to thinks it's special, just a little bit "different" than the generations that came before. I know my generation, the baby boomers, sure did. Caught up in the unbridled optimism of youth, we thought we were so different that we were going to change the world.
I thought about this a few weeks ago while attending the Future of Entrepreneurship Education (FEE) Summit in Orlando, Fla. I met many driven young entrepreneurs under 30 who are determined to fix the mess the previous generations have made of the world (which kind of reminds me of what my generation used to think).
Don't get me wrong. I hope they can do what we boomers couldn't. And one thing this new generation, known either as the Millennial Generation or Generation Y, has going for it is the prevalence of entrepreneurs in the world today. In my day, most people aspired to get a good job and start climbing the corporate ladder. (Heck, most women aspired to get any job at all.) Today, it's obviously a different story. Entrepreneurship is taught at hundreds of colleges, and programs like the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) provide entrepreneurial education to at-risk teens.
For some, entrepreneurship and the self-empowerment it fosters can often be an escape route from a troubled or disenfranchised background. As Jerry Ross, the executive director of the Disney Entrepreneur Center in Orlando told me, "The way out of poverty is ownership. Let's teach people to own stuff."
But the young people I talked with came to entrepreneurship with various motives. Most intended to change the world; others just wanted to change their own lives. For some entrepreneurs it's about the pursuit of success and money; still others were just looking to do something meaningful.
Some want it all. Scott Gerber, CEO of Gerber Entertainment, author of Never Get a "Real" Job: How to Dump Your Boss, Build a Business, and Not Go Broke, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council, and already a serial entrepreneur at the age of 27, believes that "Young people need to be better served, and the people who serve them need to better understand how to serve them." Next week Gerber will be in Washington, D.C., speaking with the Small Business Administration about how it must do more to help young entrepreneurs. Because the business he started in college soared before it eventually crashed and burned (prompting his mother to advise him, "Get a real job") Gerber believes in the power of failure. "Be afraid if you've never failed," he warns. "Be afraid to wake up in the same place."
Perhaps one reason young entrepreneurs are so certain they can create an impact is the fact that if they fail now, there's still a lot of time to regroup and start over. Ankur Jain, who just turned 21 and started his first business at 11, also experienced failure early on. By the time he was 14, Jain's online quiz site had 2.5 million users. But then his servers crashed and he had no database backup. Instead of wallowing in negativity, Jain says he told himself, "That's it, move on."
And move on he did. While a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, Jain founded the nonprofit Kairos Society (kairos meaning "opportune moment" in ancient Greek), whose mission is "to foster and connect young people as they pursue their entrepreneurial goals, and to spark initiatives that create global, lasting, and game-changing impact through cooperation, collaboration, and action."
A lofty goal to be sure. But Jain, the son of a self-made entrepreneurial billionaire, told me his generation has several "massive needs" including "creating value for society." It's almost a compulsion. He likens it to being on "a powerful path to control their own destinies," and his personal mission is no less than "to change the world."
Back in the 60s and 70s many college students took to the streets to protest. This generation is still taking it to the streets, but they're hyper-focused on creating social change. While still a student at the University of Chicago, Kairos Society member Ted Gonder co-founded Moneythink, a mentoring organization designed to teach financial literacy and entrepreneurship to urban high school kids.
Lest you think these young entrepreneurs are driven solely by ideals and not profits, Ryan Allis, co-founder and CEO of iContact, an email marketing company, is proof you can do both. Allis' company has 65,000 customers and $40 million in annual revenues. But Allis also founded the Humanity Fund, a private investment fund that invests in early stage, socially responsible companies in the U.S., South America, and Africa.
Reflecting the sentiments of his generation, Allis defines an entrepreneur as someone "who takes action to change the world." Sounds just right to me.
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