The newly appointed Minister for Children in Ireland asked me two weeks ago, what child and youth policies foster entrepreneurship later in life? Although not statistically valid, of the two dozen cases of entrepreneurs around the world that I have published a large number of them remembered early childhood experiences that strongly impacted their entrepreneurial drive. Here is what I wrote:
1. Directly impact children, and get the parents as a bonus. It is fantastic to devote a portion of your policies for children to planting the seeds of the entrepreneurial spirit in children. That is a great and inexpensive long term investment, but there can be a surprising short term payback: by "infecting" kids with entrepreneurship, the parents may get excited about entrepreneurship for themselves, too.
2. Create cultural icons. Research five decades ago by Harvard's David McClelland and colleagues showed that the stories and sayings that parents tell or use with their children can impact entire societies' a generation later. I remember as a child "The Little Engine that Could," and "A stitch in time saves nine." I recommend you sponsor children story contests, by adult, youth, and child authors. Crowd source the design of cultural images. Identify the values you want the stories to reflect, choosing among those related to entrepreneurship: perseverance, resourcefulness, hard work, mastery (taking control of one's own fate), leadership, ambition and success, experimentation, independent thinking, learning from mistakes, creativity and innovative spirit, for example -- and explicitly use them as themes for the stories.
3. Encourage kids to work. A striking number of entrepreneurs recall working as kids during vacations and after school. The newspaper route, lemonade stand, selling fruit on street corners, shining shoes, working as tour guides, caddying golf, picking fruit, mowing neighbors' lawns, and shoveling snow. My brother and I sold handmade fishing lures on Cape Cod and worked as porters during a ferry porter strike. Teach parents the value of kids' being independent and avoiding learned helplessness by applying the "matching funds" principle early on.
4. Educate families to let kids budget their home expenses. Train parents to teach their children financial responsibility early. When our third and fourth children entered their teens, we realized that they could handle a fairly complex monthly budget and learn to make decisions among saving and spending, or the implications of choosing among more mobile phone talking, new clothes, snacks at school, haircuts, and weekend parties. And our fourth answered her own question, "WHY do I HAVE to study math?"
5. Organize entrepreneurial experiences. Lemonade Day is catching on big time in the US. Started a few years ago in Texas, now over 20 US cities (Babson launched it in Boston this year) sponsor Lemonade Day experiences in which children learn how to create a business, market a product, and collect and handle money, all in a fun and festive atmosphere.
6. Introduce formal entrepreneurship classes in schools. Although teachers in some cultures resist this, there are many positive models for introducing financial literacy and entrepreneurship as part of the formal curriculum. The "gold standard" is NFTE in the U.S., which has created sophisticated high school curricula, text books, teacher training programs, and a national high school business contest that was featured in the documentary, Ten9Eight. Research has shown that high school courses not only lead to more entrepreneurship, but to better grades in maths and English, as well as better citizenship in school.
7. Encourage role models. I recently worked with a Colombian city founded 160 years ago by opportunity seekers who struggled over mountains with wagons and livestock to build a better life. Puzzled by the dearth of entrepreneurship in the city, I was surprised to learn from one of the mothers that neither she nor her children were taught much in school about these amazing pioneers. Your ministry can help promote such historical figures, as well as modern ones, by telling the stories and inviting local entrepreneurs to talk to classes about their experiences. Involve the local media.
8. Encourage and celebrate experimentation and independent thinking. Creativity, innovation, and independent thinking are the life blood of entrepreneurship, yet schools and teachers are often blamed for discouraging these behaviors because they feel that they lose control of the class. Every school and every department of education should have an explicit program for encouraging independent, and even contrarian, thinking and experimenting.
You have to take and mold these ideas, or invent new ones, and come up with programs that are consistent with your policies, culture, and laws. But you don't have to leave it to chance: you can have an influence on entrepreneurship in your country now.
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