Now is the time to Inspire, Equip and Empower the next generation of entrepreneurs

By: Dave Spencer, Chief Operating Officer, North America, SAP

We’ve all heard the cliché that small businesses are the engine of the U.S. economy. To be precise, entrepreneurs are the engine of our economy, responsible for most net new job creation and nearly 20 percent of gross job creation.

That’s not all. Entrepreneurs are also a major force of disruption, introducing new ideas and solutions that are changing the way people interact with one another, consume information, and purchase goods and services. They are challenging incumbent leaders and forcing large companies to adapt and innovate more quickly than ever before. An argument could credibly be made that entrepreneurs are a significant reason why this nation remains an economic and technology powerhouse.

And entrepreneurs don’t just exist in start-ups either. Those with an entrepreneurial mindset are incredibly important to established companies too, particularly in the tech sector where we’re faced with a dearth of skilled talent. In order to overcome the innovator’s dilemma it’s critical that companies maintain a full pipeline of entrepreneurial-minded employees who are constantly pushing boundaries, challenging thinking, and ensuring that complacency doesn’t take hold.

Is entrepreneurship ebbing?

If you watch the TV show “Silicon Valley,” read about the exploits of young founders, or pay attention to IPOs, you might think we are living in the age of the entrepreneur, with companies hatching in garages by day and becoming billion-dollar exits that night. But in reality, the percentage of start-ups in the business community has actually been declining. In fact, while new businesses represented 165 of every 1000 companies in the late 1970s, that share had declined to just 85 of every 1000 businesses by 2016.

We can speculate as to reasons for the drop in entrepreneurship, whether it’s the lingering effects from the recession nearly a decade ago, political uncertainty, or any number of other factors that may be curbing the appetite of would-be entrepreneurs. One thing we know for certain is that the steepest dip in entrepreneurship in the last 20 years has been among those aged 20 to 34. Whereas 20 years ago this age group comprised more than a third of new entrepreneurs, in 2014 they accounted for less than a quarter.

We can turn the tide

Whatever the cause, it’s incumbent upon all business leaders to do our part to stimulate an interest in entrepreneurship among Americans at an early age. We can’t wait until people are in the workforce, or have already charted a path for themselves that may or may not include acquiring the necessary education or skillset. Instead, we need to engage with students in their formative middle school years, through high school and into college.

At SAP, we’ve made that a focus, with programs such as the Social Innovation Series with GenYouth, our decade-long partnership with NFTE and their Startup Tech program, and our Early College High School programs around the country. This in addition to funding entrepreneurs through SAP.iO and Sapphire Ventures. What’s become clear through this work with countless young people is that there are three invaluable contributions that all of us, no matter your title or industry, can make to fuel the next generation of entrepreneurs:

  • Inspire – We need to motivate young people to become self-starters. To have the confidence to pursue a path that may be challenging, but can also be incredibly rewarding. We can do this by being present in their classrooms, by mentoring students, by introducing them to the many success stories of entrepreneurs in the region. We also can’t underestimate the power of sharing our own stories, demonstrating the passion that drove us, and imparting the wisdom we’ve gained along the way.

 

  • Equip – It is a fact of life that some students may have a head start compared to others due to support at home or access to resources. But all young people, regardless of their environment, have the potential to become great. We need to do our part to level the playing field, by helping these students gain access to technology and to the skills they need – whether through school staff, volunteers, or supplemental instructors. Get involved, donate your time and resources and you’ll be amazed at what can be accomplished.

 

  • Empower – As business leaders, we need to give young people a chance. Encourage them to take risks, put them in positions where they may succeed or – better yet – where they may experience failure. And help them see how incredibly beneficial it is to have those experiences, to pick themselves up and to grow from them. Invite them to hackathons, give them internships, take chances on unconventional hiring. Above all, support them and give them a chance to experience the thrill of entrepreneurship.

 

If each of us commits to seeking out an opportunity to do just one of these three things in our local community, we can be assured that entrepreneurship will continue to thrive in Philadelphia and beyond.

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