Millennial Entrepreneurs: ‘Why Not Me?’

With employment in traditional career fields more uncertain and barriers to launching businesses lowered, many millennials look to work for themselves.

Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and National Journal's Ron Brownstein.
National Journal
Stephanie Czekalinski
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Stephanie Czekalinski
March 25, 2014, 11 a.m.

If you don’t have a job and you want one, vo­lun­teer­ing can in­crease your chances of get­ting an of­fer by as much as 27 per­cent. That’s ac­cord­ing to Wendy Spen­cer, the CEO of the Cor­por­a­tion for Na­tion­al and Com­munity Ser­vice, the fed­er­al agency that ad­min­is­ters Ameri­Corps and oth­er ser­vice pro­grams. Spen­cer was the key­note speak­er Tues­day at a Na­tion­al Journ­al and At­lantic town-hall event on mil­len­ni­als in Aus­tin, Texas, un­der­writ­ten by Mi­crosoft.

Ser­vice can be an in­cub­at­or for mil­len­ni­als (the pop­u­la­tion born between 1980 and 2000), many of whom are turn­ing to en­tre­pren­eur­ship in the face of a com­pet­it­ive postre­ces­sion eco­nomy. Dur­ing a year with Ameri­Corps, “you get lead­er­ship skills, man­age budgets, fun­draise,” said Spen­cer. “You learn how to com­prom­ise, how to ne­go­ti­ate, how to build con­sensus.”

Couple those skills with the op­por­tun­ity to see how or­gan­iz­a­tions and busi­nesses op­er­ate and sus­tain them­selves, and mil­len­ni­als who vo­lun­teer are primed for suc­cess­ful ca­reers, Spen­cer said. She sees Ameri­Corps alums work­ing around the coun­try at non­profits, in pub­lic ser­vice, or at private com­pan­ies. But mil­len­ni­als, a fam­ously en­tre­pren­eur­i­al bunch, can also use those skills to start their own busi­nesses.

Many young people are do­ing just that. By 2012, a full two-thirds of mil­len­ni­als were in­ter­ested in en­tre­pren­eur­ship, and more than one-quarter (27 per­cent) were already self-em­ployed, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce Found­a­tion. In 2011, mil­len­ni­als launched nearly 160,000 start-ups each month, and 29 per­cent of all en­tre­pren­eurs were between 20 and 34 years old.

Jae Kim, cre­at­or and own­er of the Aus­tin food truck Chi’Lantro, which is fam­ous for its Kim­chi fries, said per­sist­ance is key for mil­len­ni­al en­tre­pren­eurs. Kim, a pan­el­ist at the town hall, said he star­ted two busi­nesses be­fore launch­ing Chi’Lantro. Both failed.

Chi’Lantro has sur­vived for four years, but ac­cess to cap­it­al has been a chal­lenge for Kim. He re­coun­ted ex­haust­ing his sav­ings and max­ing out his cred­it cards to get the busi­ness rolling. He’s not alone. A 2011 sur­vey by the Kauff­man Found­a­tion showed that 41 per­cent of 18-to-34-year-olds sur­veyed said that ac­cess to a loan or cred­it is a bar­ri­er to start­ing a busi­ness.

Des­pite dif­fi­culties ob­tain­ing cred­it, tech­no­lo­gic­al in­nov­a­tions have made it less ex­pens­ive and time con­sum­ing — par­tic­u­larly for mil­len­ni­als — to start busi­nesses, said Bob Met­calfe, pro­fess­or of in­nov­a­tion at the Uni­versity of Texas (Aus­tin) and a pan­el­ist at the town hall.

“I hope [en­tre­pren­eur­ship] be­comes more the rule than ex­cep­tion,” said Met­calfe dur­ing the pan­el dis­cus­sion. “In­stead of hav­ing five people who are mon­strously suc­cess­ful … we’d see 100.”

It’s a mes­sage that’s get­ting through to young people on the Aus­tin cam­pus. Grant Heimer, a UT stu­dent who dir­ects the Long­horn En­tre­pren­eur­ship Agency and who was also on the pan­el, said that Red­dit cofounder Alex­is Ohanian vis­ited the cam­pus de­liv­er­ing the mes­sage that any­one with an In­ter­net con­nec­tion and a laptop can start a busi­ness. Ac­cord­ing to Heimer, “Mil­len­ni­als are think­ing: Why not me?”

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