POLITICS -- July 13, 2011 at 4:59 PM ET
Woodruff: Young Entrepreneurs Pursue Opportunity in a Tough Economy
You often hear it said these days that there's no way the "next" generation will have it as good as their parents did. In fact, public opinion surveys have been showing since as long ago as 2005, well before the Great Recession, that a majority of today's adult Americans believe their children can expect a lower standard of living than they grew up with.
But if the group of young entrepreneurs who came to Washington Wednesday has a say, that widely-held perception will prove to be dead wrong.
As part of a project called "Buy Young," organized by the non-profit Our Time, over a hundred young men and women -- almost all of them under the age of 30 -- sat at a giant rectangle of wooden tables at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters building. They described how they came to start their own businesses, with explanations from "no one would hire us" to "there weren't enough women restaurateurs in New York City" and "I'm from a family of entrepreneurs." With names like Tutorspree, Jack's Threads, Tasty Clouds Cotton Candy and uBeam, their companies -- ranging in size from a handful of employees to many hundreds -- shout that they are different.
But what's really different is the confidence these young business owners had to possess to get their enterprises off the ground, especially in the face of doubters, often-scarce seed money and few connections. Daniella Kallmeyer, a clothes and jewelry designer, told of "a lot of rejection emails" when she first tried to raise funds. Another clothing manufacturer said he had to compensate for the fact that he had no background in fashion. Liz Gutman of Liddabit Sweets said that when she and her co-founder started making and selling candy on the weekends, they were surprised at the demand and were almost overwhelmed as they scaled up to larger production.
I moderated a session with these talented young people, so had a chance to ask some of the questions on my mind, among them: what do they need from the public and the private sector to help their businesses grow? A large number -- surprisingly all tech company owners -- said they are dismayed by how few U.S.-born engineers are available for hire. Zachary Weinberg, who founded InviteMedia, which has been bought by Google, said he is forced to turn to engineers from abroad, and cited the restrictions on so-called "H1-B" visas that are required for highly skilled immigrants looking to work in the United Sates. Weinberg and others, including Greg Tseng and Johann Schleier-Smith of Tagged.com, urged more young Americans to study math and engineering -- even as they advocated for loosening of visa restrictions.
There were a few successful young entrepreneurs who railed against taxes and too many government regulations -- sounding very much like the older business types who belong to the Chamber of Commerce. And Neil Blumenthal, co-founder of Warby Parker, a "reasonably priced" eyewear manufacturer, told of waiting six months to close a loan from the federal Small Business Administration. He also sympathized with the difficulty some young start-ups are having borrowing the money they need to take their ideas to the next level; not every industry qualifies for private equity funds, he said, which are "easy to raise." That sentiment was shared by Matt Hopper, who advised the group to "raise as much money as you can now; it's available."
Asked to sum up their prospects for the future, all those I spoke with said they are upbeat. John Goscha, founder of Idea Paint, a dry erase concept, said he doesn't worry about the economy. He said he's too busy pursuing his ideas, looking for new business. "I'm hiring!" he told me.
With a large number of American young people currently out of work, no doubt many of Goscha's peers like the sound of those words. Even if they don't have the engineering degrees he's looking for.
(Watch a UStream video of Wednesday's conference.)
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