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Go small and go alone

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

india Updated: Nov 17, 2008 00:26 IST

In today’s networked society, young people may well represent the third 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.

Once entrepreneurship enters into the realm of possibilities of career options in 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 it is. In effect, it changes not only the conversation about the national economy itself — but ultimately also a nation’s economic DNA. Traditionally, engaging in entrepreneurial activities in many societies around the world, if it was on the horizon at all, 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. 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 under way in the world at large. Its message is clear: economic opportunity is not directly linked to social status.

Many emerging economies are still amidst a profound turn toward truly market-based economics. Opening the horizons of the young toward the opportunities of 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 are a powerful driving force — and can be witnessed from the booming cities of China all the way to Africa.

While some lament that the days of lifelong employment with one company are gone, the young generation in Western countries —admittedly to varying degrees — welcomes those changes. Most young people, and not just in the US, 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.

This foreshadows 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. But then again, given the profound changes underway in the global economy, there really isn’t an alternative to adapting to a more entrepreneurial concept of one’s own work life.

In closing, at a time when the global economy is under considerable stress, it is wise to look for new ideas and impulses — and to open one’s mind to new realities.

All of that is why for today’s young generation to embrace the notion of entrepreneurship in a much more meaningful and comprehensive way than most of their parents ever did is a vital step forward.

(Carl Schramm is the President and CEO of the Kauffman Foundation. The foundation is the co-founder of Global Entrepreneurship Week, which starts today)