Breaking the ceiling for a new generation of young entrepreneurs
The following Q&A is an edited excerpt from the Bard MBA’s Sept. 8 Sustainable Business Fridays podcast. Sustainable Business Fridays brings together students in Bard’s MBA in Sustainability program with leaders in business, sustainability and social entrepreneurship.
By 2030, the target date for the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals, the number of youth aged 15 to 24 years will reach nearly 1.3 billion globally, up 7 percent from 2015. This increase, especially in the Middle East and Africa, means that current high youth unemployment rates will worsen.
The clear solution is entrepreneurship. However, access to entrepreneurship is not keeping up, and we may face a lost generation of job creators.
Enter Sherry Youssef Younes and Alejandro Crawford. Both are working to democratize entrepreneurship by breaking open access points typically closed to budding entrepreneurs outside of well-established networks. Bard MBA student Martin Freeman spoke with Youssef and Crawford about the intersection of youth, technology and economic and social stability — both globally and in the U.S.
Youssef is the Technical Directory for the DFID-Islamic Development Bank Arab Women’s Enterprise Fund Programme. She’s also an information and communication technology (ICT) expert for development specialists and a women's economic empowerment consultant with over 20 years of experience in international economic development program design, development and management.
As a consultant, Crawford is managing director of Acceleration Group, where he works with the leaders of companies, governments, universities, investors and NGOs to harness the potential of disruptive leaders to remake our economy. As an entrepreneur, he launches and grows ventures such as RebelBase and Tangible Creative and enables others to launch and grow.
Freeman: What inspired you to focus on youth and economic development?
Sherry Youssef: My entry into international development started with working on technological solutions to economic development. That inevitably led to understanding how technology can be an extremely powerful and effective vehicle for youth engagement in economic and international development.
So, a lot of my work is trying to understand what their constraints are and how to improve access to opportunities — and not just educational opportunities. In many of the places that I work, for example in Jordan and in Palestine, literacy rates for young women are probably around 99 percent, yet their contribution to economic activity is somewhere around 13 to 14 percent. The return on investment in those cohorts is not very effective. That’s what really triggered my interest in how we can engage youth, and especially girls, to be more productive, active citizens in the economic growth of their countries.
Freeman: Why are youth an important age group to engage with regarding entrepreneurial activities?
Youssef: In many of the countries I work in, 70 or more percent of the population is under the age of 30. There is a global demographic youth bulge, but it’s particularly acute in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Latin America and South East Asia. In those areas, an excessive number of idle youth aren’t contributing to the economic growth of their countries but are, unfortunately, contributing to social instability in a lot of places.
That intersection of youth, technology, economic and social stability is why I think this is such an important cohort to invest in. They often have untapped potential, and for me that’s where entrepreneurship comes into the equation. There simply aren’t enough jobs out there to absorb this population, and there will never be enough jobs created by the traditional private sector to absorb the exponentially increasing numbers of youth.
The only alternative is self-employment of some sort, whether that is formal entrepreneurship or informal entrepreneurship. It has the ability to enable and empower those youth to dip into their assets and potential to be productive citizens and to be self-sufficient and self-sustaining. It’s really critical.
Freeman: How will the democratization of entrepreneurship help?
Youssef: In the context in which I’ve been working, there have been some extremely successful models set up — micro-ecosystems of very efficient and effective entrepreneurial spaces. However, they’re exclusive and reliant on networks catering to a very thin slice of the population. I feel very strongly that those ecosystems need to be more inclusive and accessible and to cater to a broader pool of talent. That’s a win-win situation.
Freeman: How does this compare to the market in the United States?
Alejandro Crawford: Entrepreneurship is down in the United States. In many ways, the situation in the U.S. mirrors what Sherry describes when she refers to populations that are excluded from entrepreneurship globally.
Sherry hits the nail on the head when she says that the populations that are the engines for future economic growth are the most likely to be excluded from access to the entrepreneurial ecosystem. The World Economic Forum did a study of alums of Stanford’s entrepreneurship programs, and those who’ve succeeded in entrepreneurship list a set of "top three" factors: access to capital; access to market; and access to talent. Without those access points, you may have the next big thing, you could be the next great entrepreneur, but you won’t be able to scale that solution.
We are very much in danger of having a generation in the U.S. and globally that feels that it can’t afford to fail. Unless we address it, we really will be looking at a lost generation of job creators. Our job, if we want to expand access to that ecosystem, is to make sure that young entrepreneurs have the basics they need to pilot and prove and draw resources to their solutions.
We want to take the kid who does not look like a stereotypical entrepreneur and make sure that she has the alliance, space and awareness of her power to create solutions.