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When Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez appeared in a photo online holding a pair of blue-and-white socks with “Forever KC” emblazoned on them during 2015, demand for the socks soared. “I went from selling about five pairs a week at school to processing thousands of orders,” recalls Daniel Serres, who had just launched his business, D.A. Socks. “It was hard to keep up with the demand. It was a complete scramble.”
But the teenager met the challenge, and customers had the socks in their hands or on their feet in time for the Royals’ victory parade celebrating their World Series win. It was a stunning success for Serres and a ringing endorsement of the kind of specialized programs that provided him with the skills to launch his business.
Aspiring entrepreneurs face practical challenges, including figuring out how to start, operate, and develop a business. But Serres’ experience illustrates how policymakers could potentially help the economy thrive by establishing an ecosystem that offers Americans of all ages the opportunity to become successful entrepreneurs. All levels of government could start by nurturing future generations, teaching students the mindset, behaviors, and tools to set goals and effectively follow through on any entrepreneurial pursuits.
Specialized business education programs, like the one Serres took part in, provide high school students the chance to discover economic empowerment via character-building experiences and activities. Serres credits the program with showing him “how to take an idea and turn it into a business.”
“I learned about everything from marketing and building a website to dealing with sales and taxes,” Serres says. He also earned seed money by winning competitions that were part of the program. “It was a great experience overall.”
Similar initiatives have found success elsewhere in the country. Seven community colleges formed the Appalachian Entrepreneurship Education Continuum, which integrates entrepreneurship education into existing lesson plans for students from kindergarten to 12th grade. As one HuffPost article notes, educators may teach students about Thomas Edison with a lesson plan that covers his historical contributions not only as a scientist but also as an entrepreneur. Working with the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE) to connect with K-12 schools, the coalition of community colleges also develops workshops, programs, and events that introduce children to various opportunities.
What makes entrepreneurship education programs especially valuable is how they encourage a deep sense of professional and personal responsibility at an early age with lessons that set children on the path to one day create their own success. “By teaching entrepreneurship and allowing young people to build something on their own, we’re helping them develop leadership skills and a sense of agency,” says Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart, who counsels educational institutions, school districts, foundations, and organizations as a strong advocate for innovative learning. “Young people come to realize that they have the ability to make a difference in their communities. This is incredibly beneficial.”
Vander Ark points to another ambitious program in Kansas City called Real World Learning, a Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation initiative. Through this program, educators, civic leaders, and business owners work together to ensure students graduate from high school equipped with “market value assets.” According to Real World Learning, asset examples include “internships or apprenticeships, substantive dual college credit applicable toward a degree or certification, select industry-recognized credentials, completion of authentic, substantive project work for clients, paid work experience in area of career interest, entrepreneurial experiences, provisional patents, etc.” The goal is to give young people the confidence and credentials needed to forge successful careers as employers or employees.
“This is the most exciting high school redesign initiative in the country right now,” says Vander Ark. “It’s not mandated, but it represents a conviction to make high school more valuable.”
Apart from these initiatives and a handful of others, there are relatively few educational programs that help aspiring entrepreneurs, and Vander Ark believes more needs to be done. He also thinks more should be done to educate people who have already entered the workforce. Federally funded job training programs in the United States have often led to only modest gains in employment and wage increases, especially for those who are professionally displaced due to automation or globalization. These workforce development programs need to be overhauled so that workers receive fresh options while also learning the fundamentals of entrepreneurship—and in turn, foster overall economic growth.
Entrepreneurs should be connected with helpful people and tools
Individuals who have started their own businesses could learn from others who have walked the same path. New entrepreneurs thrive when they get support from skilled professionals through networks, cooperative platforms, and co-working hubs, as well as incubators and accelerators. “Sixty-four percent of entrepreneurs find the opinions and insights of others who have started a business to be helpful,” according to the Kauffman Foundation whitepaper America’s New Business Plan. “Even more (79 percent) said they would participate in weekly programs for local entrepreneurs to get together if those programs existed.”
Advocates of entrepreneurial development say federal agencies should make a greater effort connecting new entrepreneurs with helpful people and tools. To do that, they could develop grants to modernize small business development centers and service locations, focusing on facilitated learning through connections and peer support. Furthermore, they could provide federal funding to organizations that serve entrepreneurs when certain criteria are met.
These advocates also feel the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) should collaborate to develop an “Entrepreneurship Corps” program, linking underprivileged and novice entrepreneurs with more experienced ones for mentorship and training opportunities. Underserved communities in the US that apply for specific assistance could then have established entrepreneurs dispatched to their region.
Evidence indicates such efforts would prove beneficial. “Thirty-three percent of founders who were mentored by successful entrepreneurs went on to become top performers,” according to Endeavor Insight Director Rhett Morris.
Above all, policymakers should keep young people in mind when it comes to cultivating entrepreneurship. “We understand the digital space better, and e-commerce is becoming more important. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that,” says Serres, who recently co-founded a business that puts the work of young graphic artists on everyday items. “Young people are helping to redefine what the marketplace looks like,” he says. “We’re important to the economy.”