Out of Adversity, Millennials Will Rise

Generation X they said. Slackers, they said.

“There is no hope for the future.”

These are the things I heard as I was graduating from college, wondering what life was going to be like now that I knew I was an entrepreneur. I’d been one since I was 8 years old, but didn’t know what to call it; I was just the weirdo out in left field.

When I went to the Stern School of Business at New York University, the entire class would turn around and stare at me when my professor said, “Jennifer, as I’m sure you know, with your agency…”

I was the one calling my professor to say, “I’m sorry I have to miss class today. I have a client meeting.”

So imagine my delight when I found others like me at Stern — those who understood that school was something to get through so we could get back to our companies. Our club, the Entrepreneurial Exchange Group, was the place where we could celebrate our vision for the future, our relentless desire to build it bigger, better and much, much faster.

We pulled in entrepreneurs like Doug Mellinger, founder of the Young Entrepreneurs Organization (now the Entrepreneurs’ Organization) and creator of one of the top 100 software companies, to teach us anything he would share. We asked Lynton Harris, who was turning Madison Square Garden into a giant haunted house with his Sudden Impact! Entertainment Company, to teach us how to break the rules. We wanted to know something — anything.

We helped the Association of Collegiate Entrepreneurs (ACE) manage their annual conference in New York City, and got to meet hundreds of other people like ourselves. I remember being fascinated with Michael Dell’s rock-star impact on the crowd, as he was swarmed by young people wanting to know how he just became the youngest company owner ever to make the Fortune 500 list.

My friends and I lobbied for an entrepreneurship major at Stern, and were practically laughed off campus. Now Stern has an entire center devoted to entrepreneurship.

We were the lunatic fringe before it was cool to be an entrepreneur.

And somewhere in that magical mix appeared the person who would become one of the closest people to me on this planet.

In 1994 I chaired a conference at Stern that was meant to be an answer to all the Gen X angst. We called it Generation E, and the theme was how we could be socially responsible as entrepreneurs, and go forth to change the world. We had keynote speakers like Billy Shore, founder of Share Our Strength, an anti-hunger organization that completely changed the charity model to one of revenue-driven products. We featured Horst Rachelbacher, the founder of Aveda. I can still hear the sound of crickets after my keynote extolling the virtues of rising tides for all. Did no one get it?

Suddenly a bubbly blonde was introduced to me, and that was the moment Jennifer Kushell and I formed a friendship that has taken us through startups, bootstrapping, powdered mac and cheese, weddings, funerals, and everything in between. It’s been a 20-year adventure — and we’re just getting started.

And now that I’m aboard as the COO at YSN, I’m taking a good long look at the conversations happening around Millennials. It’s a familiar one.

To put it bluntly, we have hung the next generation out to dry. We constantly focus on and blame them for their shortcomings, never looking in the mirror to ask who created this dynamic. We’ve written them a bad check on the future, and yet look at them with disdain when they call us on it.

Who do we think we are?

I am one of the staunchest individualists out there — I have an essay in the literary companion to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, for heaven’s sake. And I’m saying that we need to take our share of the responsibility for how things have turned out.

Note that I said responsibility and not blame: There’s no cheese down that hole. The time is now to hit a great big reset button and look at what’s not working.

Gen X said “OK, if you’re going to count us out, we’ll do it our own way.” Out of that came the dot-com revolution. So imagine what the Millennials can do — but rather than hand them the keys to a broken car, just think of the exponential growth that can come from partnering with them, empowering them so they don’t have to go it alone.

Right now the planet is poised for an entrepreneurial explosion. There are countries where that very word did not exist until recently. If we do not step up now to provide them with the tools to succeed, we’re the ones who will miss out.

Strong economies fueled by creators make for stronger villages, countries, and governments. The freedom to create is the laboratory inside of which innovation happens. In which miracles happen.

Who’s up for a miracle?