THE BLOG
10/17/2013 08:59 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Entrepreneurship Can Empower Foster Youth to Beat the Odds

Beyond managing product development cycles that gain traction with potential customers, entrepreneurship is learning to survive all the while figuring out how to thrive. In normal day-to-day life, U.S. (and international!) foster kids are just trying to survive, but they must learn how to thrive in order to beat the odds. I believe learning entrepreneurship can help foster youth become successful, productive citizens.

About 750,000 children are affected by foster care annually. Nationally, 50 percent of foster youth graduate from high school and less than five percent graduate from college. Fast forward into the future: In 10 years time, an estimated 3.75 million foster youth will not obtain a high school diploma and seven million foster youth will not hold a college degree.

"College graduates have higher employment rates and make more money," writes Eduoardo Porter in his New York Times article. "According to the O.E.C.D., a typical graduate from a four-year college earns 84 percent more than a high school graduate."

From a cost-benefit perspective on education, a college degree is a fiscal imperative. Most foster youth, however, do not attain secondary and tertiary educations. As a result, they rely on government subsidies, become homeless or commit crimes that lead to imprisonment -- these are negative social spillovers that do not add value to our economy.

After listening to the Wall Street Journal's "Rapper 50 Cent Thinks Like a Harvard Businessman" and Forbes' Interview with Jay-Z and Warren Buffet, I was shocked to see high school dropouts 50 Cent and Jay-Z compared to graduates of prestigious universities, like Harvard and Columbia. I then realized that Jay-Z and 50 Cent, two former at-risk youths, were able to beat the odds by taking risks to develop original creations and launching themselves and their "lyrical-products" into the world. They became resilient -- a lesson learned through their entrepreneuring.

"Entrepreneurship is management under conditions of extreme uncertainty; when we don't know who the customer is, we don't know what the product is going to be. We don't know what's going to work," says Stanford Professor Eric Reis. "Learning is the unit of measurement, not just building things." Entrepreneurs learn how to develop successful businesses through their experience with ideating, creating and building

The World Bank believes entrepreneurship should be a career option for all opportunity youth -- foster kids included -- between the ages of 16 and 24 whom are not enrolled in school nor participating in the labor market. I recently worked on a World Bank case study -- the problem is 51 percent of all Moroccan youth between ages 15-29 are not in school and out of work. The economy there is vibrant but does not create enough jobs for young people to work and acquire new skills.

The Kauffman Foundation produced research with a thought-provoking conclusion: Startups create more jobs than established companies and firms in a given year. Therefore, my recommendation centered on how micro-entrepreneurship ICT solutions, like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), can help opportunity youth in Morocco gain the necessary skills to become entrepreneurs.

Youth entrepreneurship programs have the power to reengage poor youth, curb juvenile delinquency and create new jobs that pump life into economies. Therefore, I support organizations like BUILD, Young Biz and The Possible Project. They use entrepreneurship curriculums to empower opportunity youth in school settings to achieve. However, many foster kids do not care to sit in classrooms learning information seemingly irrelevant to their daily survival. I wish there was an entrepreneurship program to act as an alternative to traditional schooling -- similar to the YES Inc. -- that promotes company building and learning along the way.

I am an advisor and business coach to the startups Harper Lei, Krystal Board, WHITESPACE, and Black Startup, and I have worked for two successful startups Wayfair and Wefunder. These experiences have taught me three transferable lessons: how to maintain a positive attitude when facing unfavorable situations; small victories provide hope to overcome an obstacle and gain the momentum to continue forward; and ordinary people build extraordinary companies.

"An entrepreneurial spirit is measured by innovation and risk-taking in an ever-changing and increasingly competitive global marketplace," states Lesa Lessard Pearson, Incoming Executive Director of MIT's Enterprise Forum of Cambridge.

Faced with uncertain futures, foster youth are often called upon to take risks, adapt quickly to change, discern opportunities and threats and generally make life work, if they want to succeed, using ingenuity and tools at-hand. For these reasons, [foster youth] may be well-suited to become entrepreneurs.

Foster youth subsist on economic opportunities and hope for financial autonomy. However, when viable career options do not exist, they must create their own. Instead of becoming products of their morose environments, they should be learning to create beautiful products.