At a recent economic forum hosted by the Bethel Baptist Church in Kingston, a young man came forward to ask the panel of financial experts for tips on how he could be successful in his new business venture. As he made his passionate plea for guidance, I recalled the challenges of my first entrepreneurial effort at 23 years of age.
With the adventurous spirit and eternal optimism of youth, I enthusiastically pursued my business idea, but after a couple of years, I realised that having an innovative concept was not enough to attain business growth. I didn’t know enough about marketing, sales, product development and strategising; and I remember feeling confused and frustrated as I searched in vain for answers on how to build a sustainable business.
Today, with the lack of employment opportunities in Jamaica, many young people are forced to try to make an income for themselves. However, despite the emergence of several organisations designed to assist business development, thousands of young entrepreneurs still struggle to turn their inspirations into profitable ventures, and a large percentage of them will not be successful in their endeavours.
Regional Focus on Youth Entrepreneurship
Youth entrepreneurship is an area that is now of great importance to governments and developmental agencies in the region. The Young America Business Trust (YABT), an arm of the Organisation of American States (OAS), estimates that there are 140 million youth aged 18-30 years in Latin America and the Caribbean, with some 60 per cent of them living below the poverty line.
According to the YABT website, while young people can be a source of growth and development, “youth at risk are prone to becoming victims or perpetrators of conflict, violence, poverty, and/or exclusion, which in turn threatens the economic, social and political well-being of their countries”.
In Jamaica we are reaping the bitter harvest of too many idle young hands which are not being channelled into projects to supply them with steady income and hope for the future. It is crucial for us to use the tool of youth entrepreneurship to provide opportunities for our young people to escape the chains of poverty and crime.
Barriers to the Growth of Young Entrepreneurs
While the powers-that-be and civil society may agree on the need to get our young people gainfully occupied, achieving this goal is not a simple task.
Firstly, our educational system does not do justice to the field of entrepreneurship. Business studies in high school are often delegated to those who aren’t considered smart enough to pursue traditional science subjects. Many school curriculums focus on rote learning to secure exam passes, but entrepreneurial stimulation requires the encouragement of innovative ideas and thinking outside the box.
For the small percentage of graduates who genuinely aspire to own their own businesses, there is no structured educational outlet where they can learn the tools and techniques to successfully operate an enterprise. Some people believe that running a business just takes a little common sense, and that with a few short courses in business planning and marketing, the new entrepreneur should be ‘good-to-go’.
Financing for start-up ventures is always a challenge, and obtaining funding is even harder for young people. With the high failure rate for new businesses, it is understandable why many financial institutions are reluctant to lend to inexperienced entrepreneurs without a track record of success. This is a catch-22 situation, as many businesses actually collapse because of a lack of sufficient working capital.
Fostering Entrepreneurship for the Youth
If we are serious about nurturing our youth towards income creation, we have to start implementing relevant programmes within the school system. Vocational guidance to identify entrepreneurial potential must be provided and teachers should be trained to make all subject material relevant to real-world earning opportunities.
One of my pet peeves is seeing creative efforts by students that are not coupled with entrepreneurial guidance to help them reap financial benefits from their hard work. For example, students often design viable inventions for science fairs that could be produced and marketed for profit, but the value that they create is never channelled into a business venture. Unfortunately, many of these students turn around and leave university without job options.
Successful business owners need to give back by fostering the development of a new crop of young entrepreneurs. Mentoring is a vital tool to teach youngsters how to navigate the tricky waters of business, and established entrepreneurs can provide this support in association with past students’ associations, service clubs and church ministries.
Along with mentoring, I encourage progressive business owners to consider providing venture capital support to young persons with solid business ideas. This financial assistance and managerial support will help to ensure a higher success rate among youth entrepreneurs.