Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Start Up! Nurturing the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs

Hiring is going down, unemployment is going up and the country's leaders inside the Beltway aren’t doing enough to address the seemingly endless problems – plunging budgets, rising class sizes, teaching “to the test” – afflicting public schools.

Combine these factors with high dropout rates, soaring college costs and lack of job openings for new grads and you have a bleak picture of our young people’s future prospects. What's being done to boost our youth's competitiveness in an increasingly globalized job market? There is no sugar-coating this: American youth trail those of most other developed countries in math, science and reading.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to ignite that "can-do" spark in even the most apathetic or disadvantaged children. Growing numbers of jobless young Americans have decided to create jobs out of desperation – by starting their own businesses. And here’s something even more inspiring: a lot of these young entrepreneurs are launching businesses that also incorporate social-impact programs addressing issues such as worldwide food preservation, the lack of clean water in the developing world and unemployment itself. Go them!

I happen to know firsthand about the power of entrepreneurship, and not just because I've started a number of businesses. For several years, the nonprofit division of my PR agency, The ThinkTank, worked with a wonderful non-profit organization called NFTE (Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship). NFTE is dedicated to showing at-risk youth and those from low-income communities the world of opportunity that can open up if they embrace the challenge of starting businesses. How rewarding to see the look of pride on the face of an eighth-grade girl from Little Havana as she pitches her business plan for an apparel company. NFTE’s success has been amazing to see: the group started with just a few schools in the South Bronx and today it’s giving start-up classes to kids all over the world. How Nifty!

Kids all over the country are coming up with clever ways to make money. Like 15-year-old Californian Jason Li, who founded iReTron, a company that pays consumers for their old electronics, refurbishes them and resells them, keeping them out of landfills. He’s just one example of the great things a kid with business know-how can accomplish.

I’m convinced, like the author of a recent TIME Magazine article, that it is absolutely crucial that more youth learn the skills to start 21st-Century businesses. They need to know how to use today’s powerful online tools, social media and mobile technology, not just to create jobs for themselves and others, but to serve as examples for other youth and spread that go-get-it spirit around the country’s wider student population, showing lackadaisical peers just how school is, indeed, relevant to their lives. Furthermore, the country’s economy isn’t only shaky, it’s also changing. Manufacturing, the booming engine which propelled mid-20th Century middle-class prosperity in America, is a shadow of its former self. We need young entrepreneurs to drive innovation and growth in new industries – tech and green, for example – to fuel a country that can hold its own against the world’s emerging big powers.

Widespread business education programs in our schools could do wonders for the youth who will be running this country in the next 20 years and beyond. Let’s hope that as a nation we can somehow overcome our vast differences – difficult, I know – to make it happen. Our children’s future (and their children’s) will be all the brighter for it.

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