Kids used to want to be baseball players or rock stars. Now they want to be the next Steve Jobs.
According to a Gallup Poll released in January, 43% of students in grades five-12 want to be entrepreneurs, and around the country youngsters are signing up for lessons in business savvy. Almost 60% say their school has classes on how to start a business, up from 50% in 2011. Those numbers don't even include after-school entrepreneur workshops.
The huge popularity comes at a time when the youth unemployment rate is one of the worst on record. January's unemployment rate for ages 16-24 was 17.6%. That's a far cry from the pre-recession level of 10.9% in January 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many young entrepreneurs say if they don't make their own jobs, no one will.
"A lot of kids are just really hungry to work," says Youth Express enterprise director Randy Treichel, whose St. Paul-based organization's youth entrepreneurship workshops have become increasingly popular.
His solution: Youth Express runs a bike store, the Express Bike Shop, which employs workshop participants in key roles so they can learn how to run a business firsthand and try out the lessons they've learned in the workshop, such as determining competitive advantage, understanding supply and demand, calculating gross and net profit, and identifying a target market.
"We want them to learn it in the classroom setting and then be able to apply it pretty quickly in the work setting so that lesson really sets for them," he says. "It's a type of learning that a lot of young people can get really excited about."
Amy Rosen, CEO of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, or NFTE, couldn't agree more. She wants entrepreneurship taught as part of "every career and technical class" in the country. If it's not, kids risk dropping out of school, she says, citing that high schoolers report only 44% engagement in the classroom, vs. 76% for elementary school students, according to recent Gallup Student Poll results. "Making the classroom relevant to life and connecting school to opportunity would make them show up," she says. "They actually start having a life plan, and they connect with the community."
Clothing entrepreneur Gary Jiang, 20, says he was a quiet kid who "would always sit in the back of the class and not say anything" before he got bitten by the entrepreneur bug at an NFTE summer program in high school. Now he runs four small businesses: the clothing brand he founded at age 15, called MuffinMilk, a high-end sustainable clothing company called The Hight Club, a customizable watch start-up called Snake's Tail, and an online retailer, Superego Clothiers. Hight Club and Snake's Tail are "works in progress"; Superego is launching in April.
"I'm in a much more stable position as an entrepreneur than I would be just trying to find a job," says Jiang, a junior at Babson College.
Critics say entrepreneurship can't be taught in class. Get out of the classroom and work with local entrepreneurs and business incubators to pick up skills and experience, advises Dale Stephens, 21-year-old founder of UnCollege, an organization offering workshops and educational resources to young entrepreneurs who favor self-education over school. Stephens himself was entirely self-taught through high school.
"Learning happens all the time," says Stephens, whose company's new gap-year program drew around 500 applicants for 10 spots in its first session in September. "It's about getting an education for yourself in a world where you can't necessarily rely upon school giving it to you."
But no amount of business savvy can carry young entrepreneurs over what may be their biggest hurdle: their own age. Older professionals still look at them like they're running a lemonade stand.
"It's something I have to overcome in the first conversations I have when I'm networking," Jiang says. "Until I start to spit some knowledge, and then they realize it's something I'm fully invested in."
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