Thoughts on Reluctant Entrepreneurship
What’s unique to the Entrepreneurial Generation isn’t just that we are entrepreneurs; it’s why we’re entrepreneurs.
We are the Entrepreneurial Generation. Or, in the words of William Deresiewicz, we are “Generation Sell.” It’s a welcome change from earlier characterizations—the Apathetic Generation, the Entitled Generation, and Generation Me—and it’s more accurate too. With unparalleled access to information, markets, and technologies to help us build independent businesses, we’re more likely than any previous generation to become entrepreneurs. We fund our projects on Kickstarter, hawk our crafts on Etsy, and make our parents cringe by rejecting traditional career paths. I’m an entrepreneur, and so are most of my friends.
Our penchant for self-employment has been the subject of many articles in recent months, most notably Deresiewicz’s November 12 New York Times op-ed, “The Entrepreneurial Generation.” But while the articles accurately highlight the symptoms of entrepreneurship, they fail to diagnose the causes. What’s unique to this generation isn’t just that we are entrepreneurs; it’s why we’re entrepreneurs.
It should go without saying that technology has played an integral role in our entrepreneurship. Enhanced connectivity and services like Skype, Etsy, Elance, and Dropbox have lowered the barriers to working independently. And what’s more, the traditional idea that we should “work our way up” in our careers is becoming less and less relevant, as the role of technology in business grows and the youngest technologists are often the most capable. We have little incentive to stay in menial jobs.
Entrepreneurship is more accessible now than ever before, and although my business has been made possible because of it, technology is not the reason I’m an entrepreneur. Deresiewicz attributes elements of our entrepreneurship to the idea that Millennials “feel themselves to be living in a fundamentally agreeable society,” but that’s certainly not why, either. On the contrary, I’m an entrepreneur because I see fundamental problems with society and want to be active in creating solutions.
As a product designer with a deep understanding of the negative impacts my profession has had on the environment and society, I committed myself early on to addressing meaningful problems and leaving a positive impact with my work. I spent my first few years after college at Method, designing products I was proud of and using my skills as a designer to help drive a shift toward a more sustainable economy. When I outgrew the role and started to look for a new position, though, I became starkly aware of the limited employment opportunities for an altruistic designer. The few firms that were committed to design for social innovation weren’t yet stable enough to hire, and the social innovation projects in the larger design firms represented such a minuscule amount of their work that it was nearly impossible for their employees to focus on them exclusively. If I wanted a job in social innovation, I realized, I’d have to create one for myself. And so I did. In 2009, I left Method, moved to Argentina, and I founded Black and Blue Design with an old friend.
In the years since, I’ve met hundreds of entrepreneurs with a similar story. “What’s really hip is social entrepreneurship,” Deresiewicz writes, and it’s true. Social entrepreneurship, a phenomenon unique to our generation, is the recognition of social needs, and our unwillingness to take jobs that don’t address them. It’s our refusal to accept the world as it is, and our belief that, with hard work, we can make it better. And it’s why, when Deresiewicz writes that our generation has “no anger, no edge, no ego,” he’s missing the point. For many of us, entrepreneurship is our anger, our edge, and our ego. It is our social movement.
Like any social movement, ours has great momentum, but is not without its share of challenges. Almost 30 percent of early-stage entrepreneurs in the United States are driven to entrepreneurship because they have no other option for work, and that rate is growing. Even for those of us who choose entrepreneurship, many of us choose it reluctantly. We would prefer the stability and support of full-time employment, but jobs are scarce, and ones that align with our skills and values are even scarcer.
I never intended to run a business until I was actually running one. I struggled without a strong understanding of business and without the support of colleagues and mentors, and was overwhelmed early on with the administrative aspects of entrepreneurship. I faced financial troubles when clients didn’t pay on time, and had difficulty focusing and growing professionally. Mine were the challenges of any new business owner, but because I lacked any background in business or the resources to overcome that deficiency, they were magnified.
As the number of entrepreneurs grows, so does the need to empower, educate, and serve them, and to ensure that they’re better equipped than I was. To fill this need, organizations like the Unreasonable Institute, General Assembly, and the Freelancers’ Union have emerged, as have numerous educational programs on entrepreneurship. I didn’t have access to these programs when I was struggling, but with the help of my peers and mentors over the years, I’ve found exactly the work I’ve wanted to do. I’ve returned to the States and moved on from Black and Blue Design, and now I’m consulting for several social enterprises, while helping to manage two startups. Next fall I’ll be co-teaching a class on entrepreneurship to students of Design for Social Innovation. I’m determined to help them avoid the struggles I experienced and to empower them to use their skills for good.
I’m proud to be a member of the Entrepreneurial Generation. Whether we’re entrepreneurs by choice or by circumstance, we’re resisting complacency and charting new territories. We face many uncertainties as a generation, no less because of our entrepreneurship, but I’m confident that we will thrive. We’ll find our way for the same reason we’re entrepreneurs in the first place: we’re not willing to be held back, and to us, every challenge is an opportunity.