Leading Entrepreneurs-in-the-making to Better Futures

02/20/2015 11:52 am ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015

What do young people in low-income neighborhoods envision for themselves when think about their futures? Becoming doctors? Lawyers? Businessmen? Politicians? Not likely. We humans tend to model the behavior we see around us. If the only symbols of success we see in our neighborhoods are rap stars, reality TV stars, athletes and drug dealers, why is anyone surprised that this is who these young people grow up wanting to be?

These young people do not lack intelligence, but are just highly misguided youth with a crappy business plan and bad or no role models.

But if young people looked closely, they'd see there are no retired drug dealers. The long-term options in this profession are prison or death. Young entrepreneurs-in-the-making who go down this road have horrible role models and, ultimately, a corrupt and unsustainable business model built on what I call "bad capitalism."

America's marginalized youth are desperate for role models to show them a future beyond the thug culture. If we don't connect our young people with "respectable capitalism," and model and teach them what that means, we will end up with a generation of thugs.

Distressed communities bursting with potential leaders
We know that these distressed communities are bursting with tomorrow's potential leaders. Consider Marquis Govan, a 10-year-old boy from Ferguson, Missouri, who captivated the nation with his articulate plea to the commission investigating the Ferguson riots after police shot and killed an unarmed young man, Michael Brown, last summer. A composed Marquis stood at the podium and told the commissioners that his community members "don't want tear gas thrown at them; they need jobs."

There are 1,000 Fergusons across America, where young people can't picture any opportunity to apply their education and talents to get ahead in the world. They lose hope, and the most dangerous person in the world is a person without hope.

In places like Ferguson, young entrepreneurs usually materialize as drug dealers. In places like Ferguson, gang leaders are frustrated union organizers -- same talents for leadership; same aspirations; no hope.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

Poor youth have high entrepreneurial ambitions
Young people from the most stressed communities across the nation have the same -- or more -- potential as privileged youth everywhere. But what they lack are proper role models to show them how to get where they need to go.

The 2013 Gallup-HOPE Index, an annual survey of our young people's economic energy, uncovered that youth from distressed and underserved neighborhoods have a higher propensity for entrepreneurship talent than their mainstream counterparts from stable families and communities. About half of all racial and ethnic minority students (50 percent) say they plan to start their own business, compared with 37 percent of white students. It makes perfect sense, as they've had to make tough decisions from a very early age. They have to be more resilient, flexible, tough -- all traits of a successful future entrepreneur.

Quadruple business role models
More than ever, America needs to invest in these budding entrepreneurs. As an appointee to President Obama's Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans, I am fully committed to putting innovative approaches into practice so we can build financial knowledge and opportunities that empower youth. The 2015 HOPE Global Forum convened in Atlanta in January and shared best practices for turning "hundredaires" into billionaires.

I call on educators, policymakers, and community and business leaders to provide opportunities, such as workshops or internships, that encourage young people's entrepreneurial aspirations. My mission is simple: quadruple the number of business role models by 2020, and we'll change everything, because all a young person wants is a shot at economic opportunity.

Through intervention strategies like our HOPE Business In A Box Academies, powered and measured by the Gallup-HOPE Index, we can maximize the entrepreneurial talent and aspirations of our young people and spur a new generation of business owners across America.

* * * * * * John Hope Bryant (johnhopebryant.com) is author of the new book called How the Poor Can Save Capitalism: Rebuilding the Path to the Middle Class (Berrett-Koehler, 2014). He is founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, a nonprofit banker for the working poor, which provides financial literacy for youth, financial capability for communities, and financial dignity for all. Learn more at www.operationhope.org.