Starting young

Starting young

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“We need more entrepreneurs!” This statement leaps off the page (page 28 to be exact) of the Ivany Report as a call to action. The call to action is followed by a big hairy audacious goal: to generate 4,200 start-ups per year.

Ambitious? Absolutely. Vital to the economic success of Nova Scotia? Definitely!

The One Nova Scotia dashboard has revised this goal to reflect the proliferation of high growth start-ups, citing that they are a better representation of the start-up culture. By that measure, the stark truth is that we are not progressing, we are regressing. Instead of the 50 per cent growth in start-ups that the Ivany Report proposed, we are experiencing declines missing the target by 48 per cent.

Despite a history of successful entrepreneurs in Nova Scotia, we have become ambivalent about the value of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs play a key role in driving innovation, creating jobs and powering communities. This is not promoted to the extent that it should be. The resulting malaise threatens our future prospects.

The future depends upon what we do in the present. Today’s youth are tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. They will drive the economy of the future. While there are initiatives in Nova Scotia that attempt to address youth entrepreneurship education, there is not enough to affect the cultural change the Ivany Report envisioned. An Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on youth entrepreneurship cited two primary
barriers for young entrepreneurs. First,
a lack of awareness of potential for entrepreneurship among role models resulting in a lack of encouragement or negative social attitudes and second, education and training programs generally do not adequately nurture entrepreneurial
attitudes and skills.

Many experts believe that entrepreneurial education and training should begin as early as possible. It is an essential component in the preparation of potential young entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurial education and training instills habits and skills that serve just as well for successful employees in the new, post-industrial economy as for those who choose to establish their own enterprises. Although the gains from an early intervention are obvious, it is impractical to suggest that the educational system can tackle it alone.

Promoting entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial behaviour could begin as early as primary education through information and awareness-building programs. A focus on formal business and entrepreneurial skills should intensify progressively through teenage years to post-secondary. Training outside the educational system can reinforce their work and fill gaps that cannot be efficiently addressed within the educational system. This represents a collaborative effort by multiple organizations in the quest for collective impact; an impact that can only be achieved through a common strategy, co-ordinated effort and long-term investment.

In an effort to respond positively to our economic situation, policy emphasis is placed on programs for start-up and business-development support to boost youth entrepreneurship in the short term, reduce unemployment and adapt to the emerging economy. While this is a worthwhile pursuit, if these efforts were supplemented by a focus on the development of entrepreneurial skills and behaviours at an early age through both curricular and extra-curricular programming, the results of start-up and business development programs would likely improve. Entrepreneurship education for youth is a long-term investment.

The challenge for governments, entrepreneurship service providers and private sector companies is to coordinate efforts for collective impact. We must accept that investing in youth entrepreneurship education has a longer time horizon and the success metrics are two sided. On one side, success is measured by traditional business indicators, on the other it is measured by broad-based outcomes including personal growth, gains in knowledge and experience and skill development that may be less tangible and immediate. The success of youth entrepreneurship education programming is best envisioned as an iceberg. The portion above the water that we can see are the young people that actively pursue entrepreneurship through venture creation, social enterprise or pitch competitions. This visible part is captivating and positive but the part below the surface is where the greater economic benefits lie. Entrepreneurship education cultivates teamwork, innovation, critical thinking, risk taking and leadership, as well as financial literacy and business skills.

Whitney Houston was right — children are our future. Investing in entrepreneurship education and co-ordinating the effort of service providers would boost the level of start-ups and produce the kinds of entrepreneurially aware employees that drive start-ups to being great companies. Returning to Ms. Houston — teach them well and let them lead the way.

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