Why We Need a Manifesto for Youth Enterprise

October 25, 2013 by
Filed under: Enterprise 

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post here.

Young people are flocking in droves to become entrepreneurs. In 2010, 5 per cent of those under the age of 30 were starting up in business. By 2011 this had increased to 7 per cent. And last year, we’d reached 9.5 per cent – effectively a doubling of enterprise activity in the space of just a few years (see the graph below). Quite a remarkable feat by anyone’s standards.

graph 1

Yet in spite of these positive signals, we know there is much more to be done to help young people realise their entrepreneurial potential. A particular problem is unfilled aspirations. Only 1 in 3 young people who say they want to start a business are actually doing so. And even if they do start, there’s a strong chance they won’t last very long in their venture. 1 in 3 drop out within their first year of trading, compared to 1 in 10 of those over the age of 30.

So something isn’t quite right – which is why this week the RSA and RBS published A Manifesto for Youth Enterprise. We argue that more could be done to improve enterprise support across a number of areas – from increasing young people’s exposure to enterprise within mainstream media, to building their entrepreneurial acumen within schools, to giving them the resources to start and grow their very first business.

A good place to start is rehumanising entrepreneurship. We know that many young people start up in business to create something meaningful, to gain more autonomy, to solve a problem – and yes, to make money as well. But too often these ‘uses’ of entrepreneurship are sidelined, with enterprise being promoted as an end in itself rather than a means towards a better life. We could encourage more young people to start up in business by showing how it can be used as a vehicle to achieve a variety of life’s objectives.

Related to this, we should be shining a light on the ‘everyday entrepreneurs’ that young people can more easily relate to. A study conducted by the Carnegie Foundation last year found that when asked to visualise enterprise, nearly 60 per cent named a celebrity entrepreneur (e.g. Alan Sugar or Richard Branson) and only 5 per cent a local start up. The problem with these clichés is that they put entrepreneurship on a pedestal, making it seem out of reach for young people. One way of addressing this is by promoting the new types of entrepreneur that are increasingly commonplace – people who are collaborative, stumble into it ‘accidentally’, and are driven by purpose, not just profit.

Many of these are lessons for the media. But more could be done by educators, too. For example, we could expose many more young people to the notion of entrepreneurship by embedding it throughout school curricula, rather than treating it as a bolt-on course that only reaches out to the most enthusiastic and motivated students. Likewise, we should be taking enterprise education outside of the classroom by organising more ‘learning by doing’ activities that happen at the coalface of a business. One international study found that students who participate in mini-company initiatives likes Mycro-Tyco are 50 per cent more likely to start their own company.

But what about those who have already started up? How can we help them to achieve their full potential? A major step here is to get beyond the notion that support is just about the ‘supply side’ -mentoring, advice, finance, workspace and so on. We also need to stimulate the ‘demand’ for the products and services of young entrepreneurs. The fundamental rule that businesses actually need people to buy their products and services if they are to thrive is often forgotten in the debates about support. So we need to level the playing field, for instance by helping young start-ups to find shelf space in large retailers, or by making it easier for them to bid for central and local government contracts.

Finally, there is something to say here about the support ecosystem as a whole. Help for young entrepreneurs has proliferated in recent years – whether that be a new government finance scheme, a national mentorship initiative or local workspaces popping up across the country. But this is creating issues in itself, with the duplication of services and confusion among young people about what is on offer being particular challenges. On top of this, there is a sense that outputs have taken precedence over outcomes, with few services thoroughly evaluating their activities.

What we need therefore is a new era of youth enterprise support. This means not only making necessary improvements in the work of the media, educators, government and others – but also changing the fundamental way in which we see youth enterprise support. In short, it has to become less about numbers and more about results. Bigger has to make way for better; quality needs to take precedence over quantity; and outcomes must come before outputs.

It is only by making this shift that we can help more young people realise their entrepreneurial potential – ultimately for everyone’s benefit.

Follow Ben Dellot on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BenedictDel

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