Unleashing invention in our schools

What if millions of kids were given the tools to become entrepreneurs?

October 03, 2012|By Jim Clifton and John Hope Bryant

Everyone knows that the United States is in a terrible business slump, and there's no shortage of opinions about it and solutions for it — but there hasn't been much in the way of notable improvement. So we have been looking deeply into the science of human nature to find an answer and a solution, and here is what we know: There are 6 million small businesses, about 100,000 midsized companies, and fewer than 1,000 really big businesses in the United States. In total, they generate right at 100 million real, full-time jobs and just over $15 trillion in sales and production. That is "America's Company," and it has stopped growing.

We found two reasons for it. One, business leaders aren't in a "growth" state of mind. No matter the size of the company, they have lost their will to dream it and build it. Second, the country is seriously short on start-ups. We need a minimum of 2 million start-up companies per year to keep our economy and jobs pumping, but we are running at a measly 400,000 a year. This is a game-over moment. Nothing fixes the United States' economic problems unless the number of start-ups booms to new highs.

We cannot buy, tax or legislate our way to a sudden, world-changing boom of start-ups. But we can mentor and intern our way to one. The future of our economy is to be found in our youth, because the spirit of free enterprise that builds companies, jobs and economies is most likely to be found there.

But do you know if kids are financially literate enough to understand or care about business? Do you know how many want to be entrepreneurs? Do you know how many even know what that word means? Probably not — the connection among kids, entrepreneurship and the economy is a very new idea. New, but crucial. So we measured it.

We call the program the Gallup-HOPE Index. The results give political, business and education leaders the numbers they need when making decisions. The results also make it starkly clear that the relationship of kids' financial literacy and their sense of hope, overall well-being, and engagement in their schools and communities has a big impact on everyone.

Here's how it works: We poll 70,000 fifth- through 12th-graders every year, and we've found that engaged students, kids who fall on the thriving end of the well-being scale and hopeful students are approximately four times more likely to qualify as financially literate than their disengaged, suffering or discouraged peers.

So you can make the argument that thriving, engaged, hopeful kids are the best bet for future start-ups. They're the ones who are capable of having the entrepreneurial spirit in the future — and we can measure it today.

And the news is good. There are 50 million kids in American K-12 schools. Of the 30 million kids in middle and high school, 44 percent told Gallup-HOPE researchers that they wanted to start their own businesses. When we asked the same group if they believed they would "invent something that changed the world," an astounding 47 percent said, "yes."

However, when Gallup-HOPE asked these kids if they were in any local internships or were being mentored, only 5 percent said "yes." So there are about 15 million kids in a state of mind of entrepreneurship, but 95 percent of them aren't getting the attention they need to become entrepreneurs.

That's potentially disastrous, for our kids and for our country. So we started the HOPE "Business in a Box" initiative (www.operationhope.org/business-in-a-box). Students in selected schools complete the HOPE assessment. Afterward, the kids take a variety of classes regarding basic business principles — things every entrepreneur ought to know, but few get the opportunity to learn — taught by trained, local volunteers from the business community and universities.

When they're done, they come up with a business plan, which they pitch at their school before a jury made up of the local businesspeople. Winners are eligible to receive a start-up grant of $50-$500 and are assigned a business role model who will help them develop and monetize their business idea.

We plan to bring the Business in a Box initiative to Baltimore in early 2013 and held a town hall last week with State Comptroller Peter Franchot to start the conversation with community. There is a huge amount of economic start-up energy among kids here and all over the country, enough for "America's Company" to re-win the world's markets and generate tons of new great jobs. The kids have everything we need. But the adults are blowing it.

Here's one more science dive: Thirty years of Gallup research shows that when people have jobs that fit their talents and are engaged in their work, they are much, much happier. Also more productive, healthier and more economically profitable. If we give talented kids what they need to launch themselves as entrepreneurs, show them how to be engaged and what their strengths are, we can virtually guarantee them a happier, better life.

That's what everyone wants for their kids, of course. But that method has the added benefit of saving America. And that's not an opinion — that's a solution.

Jim Clifton is chairman and CEO of The Gallup Organization. John Hope Bryant (john.bryant@operationhope.org) is founder, chairman, and CEO of Operation HOPE Inc.

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