This is the draft transcript for a TEDx talk I delivered recently for the Sydney campus of NYU. When the video of the talk is uploaded I will edit this post to include a link to the video.
There’s something about entrepreneurship that makes my soul tingle. Every new venture created is like a voyage into uncharted territory. To me, capitalism actually feels like an art form. Your imagination is your brush, your business model is your paint and the world’s economy is your canvas.
I fell in love with business at the naive age of 15 years old, selling things on eBay. Each morning before school I’d make sure all my items were perfectly listed and each afternoon when I got home I’d pack up my orders ready to drop off at the local post office the next morning. It’s hard to convey the importance of the skills that I learnt doing this. The value of good customer service, learning how to recognise market opportunities and knowing when to double down or when to stop. I wish I could say I was smart with my revenue, but as a 15 year old I spent a lot of my money on the girl I liked at the time.
For all the glory that we place upon the successful entrepreneurs of past generations, the path of a young entrepreneur in the school system is still woefully under supported. In my final years of school, I knew that my passion was business, but no where did the word entrepreneur appear in career paths that were on offer. Instead I was expected to study hard for that final score that would allow me entry into university. I felt that the system was failing me, and I disengaged in that final year of high school. My way of rebelling against the system was to spend days at my local library reading books, probably not the coolest way to rebel against the system.
I didn’t know it at the time but the skills I learnt early on in my business adventures would prepare me for more difficult times a few years later. Shortly after high school I found myself homeless for a few months, partly due to my own rash decisions. I quickly learnt how privileged I was to be born in a first world country. I spent nights sleeping on beaches and dumpster diving, learning to appreciate a lot of the things we take for granted. A bed, a warm meal, support from your friends. A little while later I was taken in by a crisis centre for homeless youth and it was there that I chose to dive more deeply into my entrepreneurial passions. You see I was surrounded by young people not privileged as I, they had suffered abuse and fallen into bad habits whereas my situation was merely temporary. That experience changed me, I realised then that most people won’t take the big risks in their life for fear of the worst happening. I felt like the worst had happened to me already, and I could come back from it – so perhaps the biggest risk was not taking one at all. So there, in a crisis youth centre, I decided to dedicate myself to entrepreneurship – the art of business creation.
I fell back upon those skills I had picked up as a teenager and started looking around me for opportunities to create value for others. Over the next few years I started multiple companies. Some were successful and had minor acquisitions, others failed spectacularly. One of my favourites was called The Sandwich Hero, we delivered sandwiches all across the city to people’s offices – dressed up as superheroes, it was a lot of fun. Imagine sitting at your desk, slowly wasting away in front of your computer and in walks Superman with your chicken schnitzel sandwich. It’s my favourite story because of the smiles we brought to people’s faces.
I continued my journey along the entrepreneur’s path and kept learning through trial and error. I started a tea company, a muesli company, an education platform, went through incubators and accelerator programs, built, sold and shut down businesses. Constantly learning, learning, learning, or more often than not: Flearning, you know, learning through failure.
And then one day I had a conversation that shocked me and made me aware of a gaping hole in our tertiary education system. A childhood friend reached out to me asking for business advice. He was now one of the countries top mechatronic students, and was about to finish his degree. He knew how to invent the kind of robotics that could create entire new markets. But not once in his university journey had he been given the opportunity to develop entrepreneurial skills so that he might launch his own ideas.
There are millions of young people like him each with different talents and ideas that can help shape our future. And it is absolutely vital that we recognise the need to empower them with enterprise skills.
I am reminded of this almost daily with the constant stories of technology replacing low skilled jobs. Just the other day I watched a video where a man pressed a button on his smartphone and a drone came a minute later and dropped a hot meal at his feet. Think about what that’s going to do to the retail and hospitality industries which make up the majority of youth employment. In fact, a recent report by the Foundation for Young Australians titled The New Work Order revealed that 60% of students are currently being trained for jobs that are at risk of automation in the next 10 to 15 years.
So you’d think that with such a real sense of urgency, we would be doing everything we possibly could to equip future generations with entrepreneurial skills. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
According to this years Startup Australia Crossroads report, only 0.03% of our university students have gone through an entrepreneurship learning experience. Whether that be a course, an incubator or an accelerator program. So only 1 in in every 300 students have had the opportunity to gain the skills of business building first hand. This makes me incredibly sad, and angry, because I know that currently lying dormant within so many of our young people are the skills and ideas that will continue to help grow our economy and create the jobs of the future.
And there’s a reason university aged people are perfectly poised to start new businesses. At what other stage in your life are you going to be better situated to take on such a risk? No mortgage, marriage, kids or full-time job commitments.
If we take a step back we can see how the rest of society is benefited by empowering young people with enterprise skills as well.
Our global and local economies rely on people to step up to create new businesses. About half of the population is employed by small business. Every single one of those small businesses was started by someone who had the belief in themselves and at least a little bit of practical knowledge to get their enterprise off the ground.
And it’s not just great for the wider economy, it’s good for everyone. Corporates get access to a labor force who are more flexible and able to bring innovation and new ways of thinking into their organisations.Venture capitalists and angel investors win because they get more deal flow from more entrepreneurs who started learning how to build businesses a lot younger. Consumers get to enjoy products and services that have come about as a result of entrepreneurs looking for a competitive advantage. Parents get to watch their children develop skills of independence that they didn’t know they were capable of. We get to watch our young people lead us into the future.
Now you might throw up your hands and say “what can I do? – I don’t control what our education systems decide to teach”. Well, I’ve learnt that it’s not just the educational institutions that are able to change the paradigm. In fact one of the best examples we currently have of entrepreneurial education happening in Australia has been led by the non-profit and corporate sectors. It’s called the $20 BOSS program. High school students are lent $20 and given a month to start a business and begin trading. They’re encouraged to return the $20 and $1 of interest at the end of the experience.
I had the opportunity to meet some of the high school students who went through that program, and hearing their stories was freaking awesome.
One of my favourites was Newman high school, located in a remote mining town of Western Australia. Students there created 11 enterprises including a skateboard and scooter competition, dog walking and washing, a car wash and even offered a childcare service. And, they made a profit of over $2000.
This year, over 6,000 students across the country participated, engaging over 10% of high schools in it’s first year of national delivery. $20 Boss was modelled off of a successful program in the UK and I think we can learn from this. I think we can replicate it’s success for our university students. The possibilities that come out of initiatives such as these make me incredibly optimistic about the future, because I know that the young people who go through them will be the same people who create the jobs of the future.
So this is happening, but it’s happening super slowly and I wouldn’t identify as a Gen Y unless I was naive enough to want everything instantaneously right? So how do we go about catalysing the next generation of entrepreneurs faster? Well, I’ve been lucky enough to help mentor a lot of young people in the ways of entrepreneurship and I think I’ve identified what needs to happen. I’ve got a little formula that I’d like to share with you and I want you to steal it. It goes a little something like this;
- First, you need a dash of inspiration, a story that inspires young people that they are inherently capable of forging their own paths through life.
- You need to add in the permission to fail and learn through trying.
- Then you need a few spoons of knowledge. You know, the practical stuff, like how to get websites online quickly, how to design and develop products and services, how to understand the basics of accounting.
- Don’t forget to add a generous helping of the soft skills too, how to pitch, the importance of resilience, an understanding of marketing psychology and how to think like a lean startup.
- Now if you really want it to come out well, you need to give them access to capital so they can gain the experience of making decisions with real money.
- Then you need to mix it all together and let it simmer in an entrepreneurial ecosystem. The perfect ecosystem to do this in are coworking spaces. They are hotbeds of entrepreneurship where you find friends, teachers, investors and customers.
So that’s the recipe. The right amounts of inspiration, knowledge, access to capital and finally a community within which to mix it all up and let it grow into itself.
I believe that if we take this recipe and build it into a young person’s early formative years we will see an awesome culture of innovation become the new normal.
It took me a while to think of the message that I wanted to leave you with. I think my friend Georgie who manages the $20 Boss program summed it up perfectly, “We need to stop giving young people pocket money, instead let’s lend them seed capital”.
Thank you very much.