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.

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  • Really interesting insight into why so many people are making the leap into the entrepreneurial space! 

    I think another piece is that our generation has seen many companies which would have been considered safe 4 years ago go under.  This has led a lot of people to realize that the best kind of job safety is the kind that they create. 

  • BY Niklos Salontay

    ON January 5, 2012 09:27 AM

    In the journalism industry, there are several factors that are driving a ton of my peers (and myself) into entrepreneurship. Rapid change in the industry has caused layoffs and sent many experienced journalists into an already competitive job market. It has also left legacy media ripe and desperate for innovation.

    Our counter to industry experience is digital literacy, and ultimately we can do more running our own ship than starting at the copy desk and working up. I believe augmented reality can do so much for print right now and as a millennial the best way to introduce that technology is by assembling the team to build it. We’ll be rolling out our technology next week.

  • BY Sami Nerenberg

    ON January 5, 2012 12:20 PM

    Danny, great write up. I share many of your sentiments and am proud to call myself a social intrapreneur in helping to direct Design for America.

    In contrast to what you’ve written about from the individual perspective, I find it curious that I’ve actually heard from several top executives that they have a long list of hiring needs, but can’t find the right people to fill them. Why is this? Perhaps too our educational system is not doing a good enough job of preparing the workforce of today. Perhaps we need to take this entrepreneurial spirit that you describe and infuse it into our everyday education. Top talent like engineers, coders, UX designers, are in incredibly high demand and short supply leaving companies to take new routes for recruiting from those who may not have a top degree from say, Stanford.

    In hearing Thomas Friedman give a talk he said, “the employees of today are those who can continually reinvent their job for tomorrow.” Our schools, colleges and universities are not creating this pipeline of those who can build, who can make, and those who can march forward in the face of ambiguity. So it’s fantastic that you’ll be teaching in the new Design for Social Innovation program to help turn the tide. Excited to see what’s next.

  • BY Danny Alexander

    ON January 5, 2012 01:10 PM

    Adam, I totally agree. Job security is hard to come by.

    Niklos, good luck with your new venture! Journalism, like so many other fields, is reinventing itself, and it’s thrilling to watch it happen.

    And Sami, great point about the employers’ perspective. I, too, have heard how hard “good talent” is to come by. But, notably, companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple (the cliche examples, I know), don’t seem to have much of a problem. They recognize what todays workers are looking for in a job— it’s more than just the illusion of security, and more than just a paycheck. Education must adapt, as you said, but so too do employers…

  • This generation refuses to think in terms of OR.  Profit OR do gooding. Job that pays well OR job I love.  Instead we think in ANDS.  Profit AND doing good.  Job that pays well AND job I love.  Since these things are not yet the norm, I think this generation seeks to make it the norm.

    We say forget single bottom line, forget double bottom line.  We want triple bottom line.

    We say forget just a good paying job OR just one that I love. I want a job I love, that pays me well…oh AND I also want to work from abroad (or from a ski town, or from a coffee shop in NYC).

    Why? Because we believe we can and life is too short to not work towards that.

  • Good article. I’m glad someone put my rambling thoughts into a coherent article.

  • BY Peter Lindfield

    ON January 5, 2012 02:59 PM

    This is a sign of hope for the planet. Some of us from generations past will look wistfully at what might have been. Excellent article.

  • BY Stormy Sweitzer

    ON January 5, 2012 05:34 PM

    Danny, you are so right.  I found myself inspired to go to business school several years ago after a decade in the nonprofit sector and hearing a radio interview with Gifford Pinchot that brought the ideas of responsible business and social impact together in a way that rang true for me.  A love of creating, an innate desire to make a difference, and lack of job options doing what I wanted to do prompted me to start my own businesses.

    Now, with business skills in tow and a handful of entrepreneurial endeavors under my belt, I also work with social entrepreneurs and enterprise-minded nonprofit organizations that need the business creation support you described.

    There’s no shortage of passion or desire…just the need for the right tools for both willing and reluctant entre- (and intra-) preneurs. 

    Great article!

  • BY Ramsey Ford

    ON January 5, 2012 08:17 PM

    Nice Article! I have an underling reluctance to celebrate social entrepreneurs—mainly because they seem so celebrated already—but your reflection on the forces that create these entrepreneurs was refreshing. Takes the mantle off the individual and places it on social/business structures.

  • BY Niklos Salontay

    ON January 5, 2012 08:21 PM

    Thanks Danny, the product we’re building is called Flare Code and we’re launching into beta next week. I’d love to invite you to test it out.

    I just finished up my BSJ at the Ohio University and even over the course of my education the field has shifted dramatically. The jSchool there (partially at our urging) is now encouraging students to take up entrepreneurship and actively seek solutions to the industry’s problems. There are even plans to turn their old building into a sort of incubation center, but due to budget issues I don’t know when that’ll happen.

  • BY Danny Alexander

    ON January 6, 2012 07:39 AM

    Thanks, Matt and Peter. Appreciate the kind words.

    And Ramsey, I share your reluctance to celebrate social entrepreneurs, but while there’s plenty to be skeptical and critical of, it’s a powerful force and worthy of thinking about the underlying causes…

  • Kathi Wall's avatar

    BY Kathi Wall

    ON March 27, 2012 03:44 AM

    Thank you for this article. I have been a social entrepreneur most of my professional life, so I find it refreshing that you should self-identify as “The Entrepreneurial Generation” and lead a band of merry entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs driven by a variety of reasons. And good for you for teaching others.

    The world and its businesses need all the help it/they can get—- that will come from people such as yourself .... air pollution in Europe, obesity in America, clean water and sanitation standards throughout .... these all need our attention, searching for solutions (sustainable of course).. Find the answers

    Technology gives us more flexibility that ever before .... even to reluctant entrepreneurs .... celebrate that. I want to encourage you to not be discouraged at a world that was not prepared for all you have to offer ... humans are an annoying lot.

    I’m approaching 70 now, a mother and grandmother ..... been creating new stuff all my life. Retrospect is the final wisdom .. looking back, we have made progress ... you will, too. ;

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