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Entrepreneurship for All -- A New Approach to Youth Development

09/30/2013 06:21 pm ET | Updated Nov 30, 2013
  • Bill Reese President and Chief Executive Officer, International Youth Foundation

The hot new topic at global economic conferences that I've attended recently -- including events at the Aspen Institute, Youth Business International, the World Economic Forum, and the Clinton Global Initiative -- is the urgent need to expand entrepreneurship training opportunities for young people in light of today's highly constrained job market. I fully applaud this focus, but want to recommend a whole new approach to it. Let me explain.

Over the past few years, it has become clear that the private sector simply cannot create enough jobs to keep pace with the vast numbers of young people entering into the job market every year. That's why there is a growing chorus in support of teaching them the basics of building and growing their own start-ups. If you can't find a job, the saying goes, create your own.

But we need to ask ourselves, to what extent can entrepreneurship really help to alleviate the global unemployment crisis? Let's take a look. Youth Business International estimates that one in five young people has the potential to become an entrepreneur, yet only five in one hundred do so. IYF believes that expanding entrepreneurship training, mentoring, and other opportunities for the remaining 95 percent of those seeking to start their own ventures is critically important if they are to earn a living, support their families, and contribute to their communities. Across Africa and the Middle East, IYF is currently rolling out Build Your Business, a curriculum and training program developed in partnership with Microsoft. Over the next few years, the initiative aims to support thousands of young people who aspire to transform their business ideas into real profit-making enterprises.

But experience has shown us that entrepreneurship training, at least in the traditional sense, is not the only answer to help close the youth employment gap. Whether we're talking about entrepreneurs "of necessity" -- meaning those often at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder who are shut out of the private sector and forced to survive by selling vegetables on the street or making handicrafts for local tourists -- or entrepreneurs of "opportunity" who are frequently already employed but have a real flair for the innovative and an instinctive feel for how to run a business - the numbers at this point just don't add up. Think about it. A billion new jobs need to be created to absorb the demographic "youth bulge" over the next decade.

So I believe we must start thinking about a different approach that teaches "entrepreneurial" skills to a broader group of individuals who could benefit from them. What has struck me recently, and what I've begun to talk about in these economic forums, is the notion that all of us need to be entrepreneurial. It is not just the struggling shop keeper in Buenos Aires or the young woman in India who wants to start her own crab breeding business who need that training and support -- but every young person who seeks to get ahead, shape their own futures, and contribute to their communities.

Why not recommend an "entrepreneurship for all" approach? The skills necessary to open a successful business are closely related to those needed to compete in the 21st Century job market: thinking "outside" the box; pushing the envelope; engaging in risk taking; and learning how to creatively solve problems, deal with conflicts, and work in teams. These competencies, often called life and employability skills, are desperately needed by today's employers -- whether the job openings are in a local business or government agency; in schools, universities, hospitals, and policy institutes; or civil society organizations. Why limit teaching these skills to a small sub-set of 'emerging' entrepreneurs, when everyone needs them to successfully navigate in today's world?

A young woman who runs the INJAZ program in the Middle East told the audience at this year's Clinton Global Initiative that while the Arab "Spring" has sadly turned into the Arab "Storm," these ongoing upheavals have forced young people to change and adapt. Instead of waiting for the government or the local company to hire them, they recognize they have to create their own jobs. Instead of waiting for someone else to rebuild their shattered communities, they realize they have to mobilize the people, resources, and ideas to do so. To succeed in this ever changing, always evolving world, young people everywhere need to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit. Fortunately, today's youth already have an abundance of creativity and the courage to tackle our toughest problems with fresh ideas. They are the change makers. Our job is to nurture that boundless potential for innovation in each one of them.

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