Setting Young People on a Path to Lifelong Success

Stanford Social Innovation Review

The access and opportunities that help many of us get ahead in life are not equally available to those living in under-resourced communities. Structural racial, ethnic, gender, and economic inequities in these communities often stand in the way of the dream of business ownership, and the independence and self-reliance that can come with being entrepreneurial.

Some strides have been made to encourage inclusive entrepreneurship programs for women and people of color, as noted in an August 2016 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “A Call for Inclusive Entrepreneurship.” The nonprofit Rising Tide Capital, for example, provides a range of business development services—including management education, networking, mentorship, sales opportunities, and access to capital—to help individuals in economically struggling Northern New Jersey communities start and grow successful businesses. While the organization has seen strong business survival rates and local job creation, these positive results do not extend to young people still in school. And yet the foundation of any inclusive entrepreneurial environment must include pathways for young people to explore entrepreneurship and learn that being entrepreneurial can become part of their future. 

For the past eight years, I have worked for the NFTE (Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship). Our founder, Steve Mariotti, started the organization with the belief that activating the entrepreneurial mindset in young people in the Bronx and Brooklyn schools where he taught would positively affect their lives and communities. He recognized similarities between entrepreneurs and the street smarts and skills his students demonstrated every day, including independence, assertiveness, comfort with taking risks, and natural salesmanship. These traits helped the students navigate challenging circumstances, and when further developed and properly focused, could set young people on new paths to success by starting a business, being the entrepreneurial employee who reinvents an existing company, or working to solve a social problem.

For three decades, our organization has operated with this vision of equity—an asset-based approach that develops the inherent entrepreneurial mindset and skills that Mariotti recognized in his students. We do this by developing noncognitive skills that prepare students for future career success, focusing on eight domains critical to becoming entrepreneurial: initiative and self-reliance, future orientation (an optimistic disposition with a focus on obtaining the skills and knowledge required to transition into a career), flexibility and adaptability, critical thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration, opportunity recognition (the practice of seeing and experiencing problems as opportunities to create solutions), creativity and innovation, and comfort with risk.

Our hands-on experiential curriculum lets young people learn entrepreneurship skills and attitudes through trial and error. Throughout the program, students build a business plan on their own or with a team. Opportunity recognition, creativity, and innovation are the early focus as they come up with ideas for their business. Flexibility and adaptability, critical thinking and problem solving, and future orientation come into play as they conduct market research, test to see if their idea is viable, and make adjustments based on their findings. Interacting with volunteer business plan coaches–often local entrepreneurs and business people—helps develop strong communication and collaboration skills. Finally, presenting that plan to a panel of judges often helps students start to overcome something they see as very risky: public speaking. Every step of the way, students develop initiative and self-reliance, and come to believe that they can take control of their own future and accomplish whatever they set their minds to do. As program alum and board member Rahfeal Gordon says, the students learn that “their location is not their destination.” 

That entrepreneurial mindset is critical to young people’s future success whether they start a business, join a Fortune 500 company, launch a social enterprise, or enter public service to work on our most pressing social problems. In a recently published issue brief entitled, “Improving Social Emotional Skills in Childhood Enhances Long-Term Well-Being and Economic Outcomes,” the authors discuss how teaching young people such skills can help them overcome challenges, avoid unhealthy behavior, and improve a variety of outcomes into adulthood, including doing better in school, being more likely to graduate college, and getting a good-paying job.
We have seen the impact in the young people we serve. In surveys, 86 percent of NFTE alumni report being either employed or pursuing further education; 80 percent are in college or have graduated; 25 percent have started at least one business; and alumni earn 50 percent more than their peers on average.

Clearly the entrepreneurial mindset confers lasting advantages to young people. With NFTE’s students being 41 percent Hispanic and 29 percent Black, we are laying the groundwork for a new generation of diverse entrepreneurs to address the many challenges they face. In turn, the success these individuals achieve throughout their lives allows them to invest in others and their communities, breaking down structural inequities and opening the door to new opportunities for all.

All of us can play a role in putting young people on that path to success. Schools can adopt NFTE’s Entrepreneurship Pathway programs to ignite the entrepreneurial mindset in young people. Right now, any young person anywhere in the world can form a team, start their entrepreneurial journey, and practice their creativity, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills by taking part in our World Series of Innovation. And, there are other similar approaches to developing noncognitive skills and stimulating young people’s minds. Mindset Works, based on the research of Stanford University professor Carol S. Dweck, teaches young people that their abilities are malleable and not fixed, leading to an increased focus on learning and improved achievement. Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, created Character Lab to help young people develop curiosity, grit, and self-control resulting in greater achievement and well-being. 

School districts, educators, and government officials should make the entrepreneurial mindset and associated noncognitive skills a fundamental part of the learning process. We understand that no approach alone can address the structural inequities that people from under-resourced communities face. Yet when paired with other efforts and sound public policy, activating and developing the entrepreneurial mindset in young people can multiply those whose personal achievements will make the changes needed to address structural inequities in U.S. communities.