OPINION: Role Models Inspire Today’s Youth to Become Tomorrow’s Entrepreneurs

Ed Grenier
President & CEO
Junior Achievement of Greater Washington

Every kid is one committed, engaged adult away from a success story. This is an anecdote that I’ve seen come to life time and again in classrooms throughout the region.

The role of the mentor in developing and emboldening the next generation is a reality I simply cannot understate. A 2016-17 JA Alumni study found that 1 in 5 students says that as an adult they have worked or are currently working in the same field as the JA volunteer they had as a school student, clearly illustrating the impact JA volunteers have as role models. This reality is something we, as adults, must consider deeply if we are truly invested in preparing our youth to confront the complex issues of tomorrow with vigor and confidence.

When our young people are afforded exposure to entrepreneurial mentors along with opportunities to develop their skills, work together, and innovate during their formative years, they are more likely, as adults, to believe in their ability to create positive change through taking entrepreneurial risks.

In fact, a brand new survey conducted by Junior Achievement USA and ORC International found that 87 percent of 13-17 year olds have an interest in starting their own business.

But interest is merely interest unless students can see the practical way these opportunities can come to life. While the study clearly demonstrates strong interest in starting a business, researchers found a number of perceived hurdles to actually doing so.

Nearly half (47 percent) of teens who expressed an interest would only consider doing so if they were given information on how to run a business, while one-in-five (20%) would only do so if someone was willing to lend them money to start a business. One-in-ten (11%) would if they knew someone who owns their own business, while nearly as many (9%) would need to have a family member with their own business to feel confident enough to become an entrepreneur.

While it’s easy to empathize with these students’ reservations, this is exactly what we must seek to change. To minimize these obstacles and provide their resources to our youth, JA developed the JA Launch Lesson initiative as part of National Entrepreneurship Month (November), to transplant entrepreneurs directly into the classrooms.

JA Launch Lesson brings inspiring entrepreneurs into classrooms for one hour during the week to share their experiences with students. No more lack of information. No more lack of exposure to entrepreneurs who have been there and done that. The program is designed to be simple for the entrepreneurs to implement and impactful for the teens participating. For example, during the experience, students can gain practical, empowering skills, such as how to create a business plan or how to successfully interview for a job.

There’s something powerful about coming face-to-face with an individual from your community, particularly if it’s someone who looks like you or whose life experiences are similar to yours, who has started their own business and succeeded. Or even someone who has tried and failed. Because here at JA, we know that often times “failure is a much more faithful teacher than immediate success,” and there is much that can be learned from rising again after a setback or two. These personal, relevant interactions have the power to bridge the relevancy gap that exists for so many of today’s students and empower them to envision their futures. 

In Greater Washington, Junior Achievement is partnering with a number of our region’s leading entrepreneurs and classrooms throughout the District, Maryland, and Virginia to provide nearly 1,000 students with an inspiring look at how entrepreneurs and small business are the accelerators of our economy, as well as what’s possible when they work hard, dream big, and set out to change the world.

And we need your help.

Let’s come together to put more entrepreneur volunteers in classrooms across the country—and let’s open more entrepreneurial workplaces for job shadow events so that students can get an up-close look at what’s possible.

Not only must we inspire our youth to think outside the box and develop creative solutions to complex problems, but more than that, we must empower them to meet the demands of a rapidly changing economy in a variety of professions and careers.

One thing that I’ve learned over the years is, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” So this is my invitation to you. Let’s go together and change the world. Are you in?

If you are an entrepreneur or own our own business and would like to learn how you can join Junior Achievement to expose more students to entrepreneurial role models and workplaces, please visit www.myJA.org and consider signing up to volunteer.