Sunday, October 12, 2008

Youth entrepreneurship matters

By CARL SCHRAMM

IT IS EASY TO BELITTLE THE notion of youth entrepreneurship.

To quite a few people, the notion itself still evokes images of lemonade stands which children set up in their neighbourhood — often at their parents’ prodding — to prove their commercial mettle and future potential.

In today’s networked society, however, young people may well represent the third major wave of new sources of entrepreneurship destined to have a major impact on the global economy.

The two major waves before them were women — and micro-lending.

As improbable as it may seem to some that young people could become a major source of start-up businesses, it is useful to remember that the same doubts were sported about women entrepreneurs not so long ago.

And micro-lending, too, was seen as little more than a passing fad promoted by some misty-eyed idealists stimulating entrepreneurial energies in Third World economies.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that the specific outcomes of promoting youth entrepreneurship are, as with all entrepreneurial ventures, uncertain.

What is clear, though, is how pivotal it is to get the conversation about this topic started — both among young people themselves as well as at the policymaking level.

Once entrepreneurship enters into the realm of possibilities of career options on the minds of young people, it becomes a dynamic organising principle for society at large.

This entails far more than changes in the school curriculum — as important as they are.

Traditionally, engaging in entrepreneurial activities in many societies around the world has been seen primarily as the domain of children of well-to-do parents — and hence an elite pursuit.

Truth be told, nothing is as stifling for an economy than to keep the concepts of entrepreneurship out of the classroom — often justified by a presumption that it is a pursuit of the rich.

Even if that was yesteryear’s reality in too many countries, today’s agenda everywhere is to open up that world so that many more young people are given a chance to get engaged.

Opening up entrepreneurship to younger people on a broader basis thus becomes an integral part of the wider democratisation process that is underway in the world-at-large.

Its core message is clear enough: Economic opportunity is not directly linked to social status.

Many emerging economies, from Eastern Europe and Asia to Latin America and Africa, are still amidst a profound turn towards market-based economies.

Opening the horizons of young people towards entrepreneurship creates a natural constituency to strengthen those market mechanisms — and is bound to expand an economy’s potential.

Their facility with technology, their desire to explore new horizons and their ambition to make a better life for themselves than what was possible for their parents’ generation is a powerful driving force.

In the industrialised world, young people — while operating in a very different environment — are arriving at conclusions that make a stronger emphasis on entrepreneurship in the national policy agenda a necessity as well.

While some lament that the days of lifelong employment with one company are essentially gone, the young generation in Western countries welcomes those changes.

Most young people prefer not to spend their entire career with one company.

Whether by necessity or desire, or a combination of both, a more entrepreneurial approach to one’s career, along with an openness to change and new pursuits, is becoming the norm, not the exception.

That even applies to those pursuing a career within large companies.

In a world of shrinking staff sizes and ever more global competition, an entrepreneurial attitude among employees is viewed as an asset even in those formerly bureaucratic organisations.

This means that, in Western countries, perhaps the most significant shift toward an entrepreneurial mindset will manifest itself in a loosening of the employee attitude that has prevailed for so long.

Mr Schramm is president and CEO of the Kauffman Foundation, which is co-founder of Global Entrepreneurship Week. 

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