Last year, a few friends and I came together to work on a project, which rapidly became a business and has, for a full twelve months now, taken up the whole of my life. I am twenty-three years old, and I have no formal business training. Such is the general path of so many of my peers in the start-up world, young men and women who, through will, drive, stamina, and not a little bit of luck fight their way to finish lines only they and their teams (and their investors, if they are lucky enough to find the right angel/venture partners) can see. We are the new hope for America, if you choose to believe what authors as varied as Thomas Friedman, Carlota Perez, and her most famous disciple, Fred Wilson, have been arguing for years: that the future of our nation, and, by extension, our planet, depends on the visions of start-up entrepreneurs. They argue this point almost exclusively with regard to entrepreneurs emerging from the technology sector, where the path to a billion dollars can seem, to the layman/casual reader of Forbes, as easily navigable as the journey from driveway to front door.
The start-up road is arduous and incredibly uncertain, and had I known all of the difficulties inherent in managing a company and building a business ahead of time I may not have signed up for the job at all; however, I have come to love what I do, and I feel a real sense of purpose every day. I get to live the life of a professional creative, taking what start as abstract ideas from the imagination stage all the way through production. This same sense of creative joy and professional fulfillment, I regret to say, is not shared by the majority of my generation.
I belong to a microcosm. Occupy Wall St, that most elusive movement begun in Zuccotti Park last month and continued around the world in subsequent weeks, is a more accurate reflection of our era, and, more precisely, my age group. "Millennials," as we have come to be labeled (a collective name Noreen Malone lamented in her brilliant recent NYMag cover story) are suffering, and while this is not exactly news in recessionary America, it is also not fair. My life consists of raising venture capital, going from meeting to meeting, staying late at networking events and, most importantly, running the day-to-day operations at a tiny, stealthy tech outfit whose first product is a few weeks away from launch. My world is full of innovation, my career is rife with possibility and my every conversation is peppered with the promise of money. The majority of my friends, meanwhile, struggle to find steady employment-even those with Ivy League diplomas-as they live with their parents, or work temp jobs, or fill out one grad school application after another in between their Starbucks shifts, the fear of further debt looming over them like the eye of Sauron. No matter how "entitled" we were believed to be by Boomers and Gen X-ers, no one would trade us for our place in history now. Sometimes it feels as though we are a generation lost to the all the greed that came before us.
But what do I care, you ask? I, who sign paychecks, encourage those nearest and dearest to me to engineer for equity and spend my weekends working on "revenue projection" spreadsheets?
Don't I belong to a "business class" of millennials? For all the good it does to talk about technological innovation, it isn't the scientists we most remember, it is the entrepreneurs who transform technology into big business that tend to end up on our list of global immortals-- and aren't I one of those entrepreneurs? The icons of our collective imaginations (and, in my experience, this isn't just true of American imaginations) wear suits, not lab coats--for every one famed academic like Einstein, there are many more Edisons, Disneys and Fords. With that in mind, in the annals of modern history, it is naïve to say that people working in the private sector can be valued for anything other than their capitalistic achievements--their wealth is the measurement of their success. In better economic times, achievements in the name of capitalism could encourage competition, and we would be able to see opportunities growing in this sector as more and more people were hired at companies whose growth rates and revenue streams match the visions of their founders. Alas, the playing field is not level, and these are not boom times. Businesses both large and small are closing with tremendous rapidity. After all, it isn't just Anthony's Triangle Deli that shut its doors after the crash (a beloved breakfast spot of my childhood), but also Borders.
People are angry. I am angry. I understand that in a capitalistic society and free market those with the best ideas and the most amount of drive tend to wind up at the top--a top covered in money, our planet's longest-running metric of success. I also understand that in a very small way I am one of those entrepreneurs I was just describing, who take an esoteric technology (in our case, machine learning) and apply it to commercial industries (in our case, ticketing, advertising and analytics for event businesses) for monetary benefit. Ford did it with the Model T, Disney with the animation cell and Jobs with the personal computer, and each of these pioneers have inspired my start-up contemporaries to build businesses of their own, both in Silicon Valley and beyond. Still, no one dreams of being an entrepreneur; they imagine making something, and it invariably happens because you can't imagine living any other kind of life.
The majority of people around the world, who I can safely say are not entrepreneurs, need jobs right now, not venture capital. Entrepreneurship is not a skill or a trade, it's an instinct, and, as I mentioned at the dawn of this post, it usually starts as some sort of project, not necessarily as what is traditionally defined as a "business". I am grateful for my opportunity, and for the team I work with to build an exciting mobile product. However, the adulatory nature reserved for the business people of the world, whether they are actual visionaries like those earlier described or just some kids waiting to get their piece of the pie before a bubble bursts (and thoughts on whether or not we are in "Bubble 2.0" after all will have to wait for another day) is a bit misguided. Entrepreneurs alone cannot save the economy-they're too weird and focused on the specificities of their business-and that's why we've been seeing such volatile protests all around the world.
The fact that the venture market is booming (though a recent WSJ article, and the fascinating Twitter argument that followed, might say differently) is good for my business, and my own experiences in this realm over the past year have been educational and largely positive. Pretty soon we will move out of "stealth" mode and transition into the market, replete with a press release, and, should we grow as I'd like us to, with users beyond our "Beta" subscribers. This is not, however, what the Occupy Wall Street protestors want or need to hear--who cares if the venture market is booming? Will the "Groupon for 'x'" or the "Foursquare + Spotify with an Airbnb business model" really put Americans back to work? Maybe it's the biotech areas of technology, not the ultra-hot consumer web that will attract growth in hirings... unlikely, as we lack the educational infrastructure to prepare our work force for a life in emerging sciences.
Last Saturday, as Rome burned and the rest of the world awoke to Anonymous masks, an Assange keynote at St. Paul's cathedral and unification around an unlikely hashtag, I marched with a group of friends, none of whom had what I would call in a better economic climate "careers" (but all of whom had part-time jobs...they are among the lucky ones) through Times Square. I was an Occupier, and I look forward to Occupying again. While my generation suffers dramatically, the age range at the march was diverse--everybody is hurting, and no one has any answers. As I see it, the discrepancy comes in the notion that the entrepreneurial class, a microcosm I proudly belong to, will right the wrongs of a shattered global economy.
Entrepreneurs can be stars, can be influencers, can transform whole industries--but they cannot put everyone back to work, and they cannot make the "bad guys" pay, which is the real priority in this first round of protests. The malaise we all feel so deeply has been caused by Wall Street fat cats, banks, and a dysfunctional government torn in two, and it must be remedied by fixing the system on the whole. My generation may be "lost", but we will be able to reclaim our sense of purpose by fixing what is broken--not by merely forming our own businesses. In need of serious reformation are a financial system for which boundaries are meaningless, a government overrun by corporate compromise and a tax system that leaves the "99%" in tatters while the richest among us continue their gluttony.
I am an entrepreneur at the outset of what I hope to be a long career full of new ideas and possibilities. I believe in the right to earn money for the contributions I make to the world. The problem my generation faces in a more acute way than any that came before us is that our means to contribute have been stripped away. Hire us. Bail us out. The Occupiers' requests may seem vague now, but they will evolve, take shape, and ultimately "disrupt" (a word so beloved in the tech community) our real global crisis: unregulated, unmitigated greed. I hope that every entrepreneur shows their full support for these protestors, and that those publications and news channels devoting the majority of their favorable coverage to the richest among us (our tech hot-shots, our top-dog CEOs) adopt the Occupiers' fight as their own. Ultimately, those in favor of entrepreneurialism and its capitalistic payoffs should also be in favor of the requests of the Occupiers--we all want to build something new.
My generation is down, but not out, and while I belong to a minority of people my own age who are not just employed but self-employed, I stand in solidarity with those whose pain I don't immediately feel. No, I don't know what it's like to be struggling for work, or to fear for the arrival of my next paycheck (in fact, I know a different kind of fear: the fear of starting something on your own). I do, however, share the desire to fix a broken system and see my peers enter the workforce as previous generations had-- with the sense that something was possible, that not all hope was lost. On the journey to restore that sense of hope, re-build the global workforce and disrupt the corrosive link between Wall Street and Washington, I stand in solidarity with the Occupiers.