BUSINESS
11/22/2013 07:40 am ET Updated Nov 22, 2013

Global Youth Unemployment Crisis Spurs Young Entrepreneurs To Get Creative

Like many young people confronting an era that has produced talk of a so-called Lost Generation, Oliver Barton emerged from school five years ago and struggled to forge a career.

For two years, he sought positions in any area that was hiring, from telemarketing to retail, but found only frustration. All the while, he lived on public assistance.

"It was very tough," Barton tells HuffPost UK. "I was applying for about 100 jobs a week, and I wasn't getting any replies."

He finally landed a job in a tool shop, but was laid off after only a year and a half, finding himself back at square one.

But rather than surrender to the seeming impossibility of securing work in a country where roughly one out of every five young people is unemployed, and where their average length of joblessness exceeds two years, Barton decided to create his own job. He applied his baking skills and founded Oliver's Kitchen, which he launched early this year. He has come to savor his independence -- along with growing revenues.

"The fact that I couldn't get a permanent job definitely spurred me on to start my own business," says Barton, 23. "I had so many bills and payments and I just thought, 'I need to try anything to make money.' I've been baking all my life, so that was a big inspiration for me. I thought I had some good produce so I should just try it out and see how it goes. I've been doing it ever since."

The Lost Generation is increasingly producing what one might call the "opportunistic entrepreneur." Unemployed young people from Europe to the Middle East to North America are adapting to the realities of a chronically weak job market by launching their own businesses.

In Canada -- where the youth unemployment rate runs twice the national average -- some 46 percent of Canadian post-secondary students now envision themselves starting a business after graduation, according to a survey by Pollara research.

"There are definitely trends indicating that young people around the world are looking towards entrepreneurship as a path out of unemployment," says Nicole Goldin, director of the Youth, Prosperity and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "In places where there's such acute unemployment, where you do see more young people going into entrepreneurship by necessity, they're less risk-averse."

The Huffington Post has deployed the resources of its global newsroom to explore this phenomenon, gathering accounts from correspondents at its editions around the world. The resulting report highlights what has emerged as a potentially promising outgrowth of the global crisis of youth unemployment -- a boost in entrepreneurial innovation.

But while the difficulty of finding a regular job is prompting young people to develop a risk-taking startup mindset, sustainability is far from assured, Goldin cautions. Young people starting out on their own face hurdles in gaining capital and getting their products to market while navigating the regulatory environment -- especially in developing countries, where resources and infrastructure are limited.

"There's obviously a lot of buzz around entrepreneurship and startups, and entrepreneurs make hugely important contributions to their economies," Goldin says. "But how do you support and provide the environment so that these businesses can be successful and grow?"

"It's a strategy," Goldin adds, "but given the scale and scope of youth unemployment in the U.S. and elsewhere, it can't be the only strategy. Especially because a large number of youth-led startups end up closing."

Barton says his success is a testament to the possibility of doing it yourself.

"Business is really picking up, although there are a lot of challenges ahead," he says. "Even though I always wanted to set up a business and be my own boss, I never envisaged myself having done so by the age of 23."

He bakes traditional English delicacies such as sticky toffee pudding and bakewell tarts, selling his wares at farmers markets and private shops.

"I would really encourage young people to think about starting their own business," he says. "It is so hard if you are a young person trying to get finance and you've just left school, but don't give up. I didn't and I've got no regrets."

UNCERTAINTY AND FREEDOM

John Nolan sat by his computer screen waiting for emails from prospective employers with good news. Or just any news. It was April 2011 and he had but one month left to find a job before graduating from Truman State University in Missouri. He was staring at a student loan debt burden reaching about $25,000, and spending every night searching for jobs online and sending out applications. But even after months of pursuit, no one was calling back.

"It was so scary for me to think to myself, ‘Oh my God, what if I get out of college, I've got all this debt and I don't have a job?'" Nolan tells HuffPost. "I was expecting to have more job offers than I knew what to do with because I spent my whole college career not partying."

All the time Nolan spent "stacking his resume" with a high GPA and leadership roles in student organizations seemed not to matter. When he graduated in the spring of 2011, the unemployment rate in the U.S. for those between 20 and 24 years old hovered around 15 percent.

While Nolan was panicking about the low number of job-related emails in his inbox, he was flooded by messages of a different sort: requests to mow lawns. As he watched his employment prospects dwindle to zero, Nolan decided to turn his part-time side gig into a full-blown business.

"I thought, I'm not going to continue searching for any more positions, I'm just going to take some time to be a landscaper," Nolan says.

Nolan's parents were initially skeptical of his decision to give up on the job market and strike out on his own. But in such a weak job market -- especially for young people -- he was in good company.

He now expects his two Kirksville, Mo.-based landscaping businesses -- one residential, one commercial -- to take in $2 million in sales this year. He oversees 34 employees and has contracts for jobs like the University of Iowa's new football facility.

"I never thought I'd be doing this," Nolan says. "It's been the best decision of my life."

'YOU JUST HAVE TO WANT IT'

If the high youth unemployment rate now amounts to a precursor for entrepreneurial drive, then Spain would figure to be a hotbed for startups. More than half of all Spaniards between the ages of 15 and 24 are officially unemployed.

But Spain also bears another distinction that works against generating startups: Those inclined to launch new businesses face extraordinary bureaucratic obstacles. Nonetheless, a few Don Quixotes prove willing to tilt at whatever windmills stand in their way.

"The intuitive types, those who don't want a desk job, we've got it bad -- but we take advantage of our creativity without taking orders from anyone," Maria Mallo, a 32-year-old sculptor and artist turned furniture-maker, tells El Huffington Post. In the fall of 2007, she left her office job to strike out on her own. Together with two friends, she founded Mecedorama, a business that makes and sells hand-crafted rocking chairs painted in bright colors.

"We left the lives we knew to push forward our own ventures," Mallo says. "Weekends? Vacation? What's that?"

Word of mouth increased sales, and the company managed to secure display space at a high-profile furniture fair, Salone Satelitte, in Milan.

"We had to pay 2,500 euros for the stand, but it was the best investment we ever made!" she says. In two years, Mecedorama has sold some 100 chairs, with prices running from 300 to 700 euros. Despite the company's success, the income still doesn't cover all of the expenses. But Mallo's dream is still alive.

Like Mallo, 33-year-old Maria Carmona also ventured out on her own. She spent years working as an architect before Spain's descent into economic depression forced her to contemplate a new career. These days, Carmona earns her living by making custom-designed furniture. She visits people's homes and examines how they organize things, like their socks and pants. Then she makes a dresser tailored to their precise needs.

"It's been hard," she says, "but we do what we want. If not for the economic crisis, I'd still be building buildings, but it was a great moment to escape that and really think about what fulfilled me."

Her studio is still under construction, in a "co-working" space in Madrid, but her mission is clear.

"I look for inspiration on the Internet, on sites like Pinterest, and I learn from tutorials on YouTube," she says. "You just have to want it."

'I SAW THE LIMITATIONS'

Mauricio Meza of Toronto completed his MBA program in 2010 and applied for nearly 200 jobs before a serendipitous encounter with an old colleague sparked the idea they could create their own careers.

"When I finished, I realized that a lot of the jobs that were MBA-specific were entry-level jobs," says Meza, who graduated from Ryerson University in Toronto.

While scoping out work options at Canadian research centers, Meza discovered Jorge Silva, a colleague from his undergraduate days in biomedical engineering back home in Mexico.

Silva was working on an interesting concept -- an interface that would allow people with disabilities to access smartphones.

"I knew there was a demand that was present, but I saw the limitations that a research center had in terms of commercializing technology," Meza says. "There was no one doing anything about taking those products to market. I thought it would be kind of a good experiment for myself to start a company and see how far it could get."

This was the thinking that brought Komodo OpenLab into existence.

The company helps people with disabilities perform day-to-day functions through new technology, such as the Tecla Shield wireless device, which allows people to use wheelchair controls to access their smartphones, laptops or tablets.

A few months into the project in 2011, Meza found that he was too busy to look for work. But he and his business partners still faced a number of barriers, primarily a lack of funding.

"That sometimes made me think, 'Should I continue this path or should I just go and find any job?'" he recalls.

After six months, Komodo secured a development grant to take academic research to commercialization. Three years later, the company has shipped more than 700 units to 20 countries.

Meza is proud of his success so far, but his biggest fear is competition -- if another company with more funding and connections swoops in.

"It's not an easy journey," he says. "It's a lot of uncertainty. But if you're ok with not knowing what's going to happen in a week, it's very enjoyable."

For young people in other places, the journey is not always as difficult. In Germany, where the global downturn has had less impact on the job market than in the rest of Europe, three 20-somethings recently joined forces to launch their own startup -- Famany, a website that invites employees to rate their employers on how well they foster a healthy work-life balance.

The three founders -- Linda Schuster, 23, Bernd Kopin, 24, and Maximilien Roth, 20 -- all studied marketing, business administration and digital media. Unlike many of their European counterparts, the three launched their venture out of genuine excitement for their plans, not out of a fear that they wouldn't find "real jobs."

"We knowingly turned down good offers, because we were sitting on the idea for Famany and wanted to make it a reality as soon as possible," Schuster says. "What we've gained in terms of ability and contacts in the last year and how we've personally developed has definitely made it all worth it."

'LET PASSION BE YOUR GUIDE'

In the central Italian town of Ferrara, Mattia Toso found himself confronting more than the grinding youth unemployment epidemic. His startup company, Kunerango, managed to persevere -- even prosper -- in the face of an earthquake that shook up Italy's Emilia Romagna region last May.

Toso and his partner, Luca Ferrari, had already developed a model for the development and distribution of digital job training programs while they were still university students. The earthquake effectively accelerated their plans.

"Many of the classrooms at the University of Ferrara were declared inaccessible, and then closed," Toso tells L'Huffington Post. "At that time, Kunerango was still just a prototype, but we decided to make it public so that our fellow students and professors could use it to communicate with each other."

Armed with Kunerango's digital tools, the professors were able to continue teaching, giving lessons online. Students were able to study for their exams. The university stayed open despite the earthquake and its aftershocks.

"That experience inspired us to go out and talk to people about our idea," Toso says. "We got a lot of positive feedback."

They also gained the backing of H-Farm, a business incubator that delivers early stage investment and mentoring to startup web companies. The infusion of capital and know-how helped them build out their vision.

"We've created a digital platform that provides the tools necessary to simplify online training, both for companies and for universities," Toso says. "Anybody who needs to learn from a distance -- schools, universities, companies, governmental agencies -- can access a series of digital tools on our platform: multimedia chalkboards, conference calls, video chats, spaces for virtual collaboration."

Toso and Ferrari have five people working for them now, most of them in their mid-20s. They are pursuing an expansion beyond schools and universities, aiming to sell to companies in need of low-cost training options.

"During a crisis like the one we're experiencing, training is a fundamental value," Toso says. "But often it costs too much for companies, so they're forced to reduce training to the bare basics, or even eliminate it altogether. That's where our platform comes into play."

Toso and Ferrari are acutely aware of the difficulties many of their peers face -- both in Italy and in much of the world. They have had to confront many difficulties themselves, including a stultifying sense of pessimism.

"In the beginning, we couldn't believe that our idea could be transformed into an entrepreneurial project," Toso says. "The thing that's kept us going has been the passion we put into our work. And that's the advice I'd like to give a lot of my peers: Let passion be your guide.

"My personal motto is: If you have a passion, believe in it to the very end, and work to make it reality. If you're faithful to this credo, everything else becomes less difficult. The long hours, the nights spent awake and working ... Then you'll realize that rather than simply trying to make ends meet, it's worthwhile to try and grow an idea."

Lucy Sherriff reported from London, and Jillian Berman from New York. Reporting was also contributed by Giulia Belardelli in Rome, Sunny Freeman in Toronto, Ana Torres and Guillermo Rodriguez in Madrid, Stanislas Kraland and Marine Le Breton in Paris, and Jan David Sutthoff in Berlin.

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Euro Area Countries With High Unemployment
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