With a failing economy, burgeoning credit problems, and companies laying off workers right and left, it’s daunting for young college grads to jump headfirst into our depressing job market. Evading student-loan collectors after a pricey four years is no fun, but even worse is the thought that a degree you might not use could decimate your savings. According to the Project on Student Debt of the National Center for Education Systems, debt levels for graduating seniors with student loans more than doubled over the last decade, from $9,250 to $19,200, a 108-percent increase (58 percent after accounting for inflation).
This is a sobering thought, considering that an annual salary of $30,667 for public relations, $30,877 for psychology, and $32,250 for journalism are on a list of “Best entry-level salaries for new grads” as reported by cnn.com in April of this year. If you’re scraping in around $30K, expect to be evading those collectors. However, some Generation Y students are taking control of their own destinies — a rising number of them are deciding they want to become entrepreneurs and work for themselves, a bold step that may help them survive a shrinking market.
Paul Ford is a beacon of hope for aspiring innovators. President of mytoons.com, an online animation community where users can upload their creations for free, Ford is a native San Antonian and ex-concert promoter who launched the successful community, networking, and art-sharing site in 2006 `see “MyToons, our toons,” February 20, 2008`. Ford knew early on that he didn’t want to work for the man and punch the clock in the traditional nine to five. He pursued a degree in International Business from St. Mary’s University, taking the business cred a step further to fully understand a global economy. He sounds grateful for his decisions when talking of students who suppress their knack for innovation until late in college, or those who launch a startup only to discover their lack of business sense.
“You have to understand the fundamentals of business if you really want to get into anything entrepreneurial,” said Ford. “You’re that one-stop shop for a while, because no one else is gonna do it for you, and you generally can’t afford to hire anyone.”
Fortunately, many colleges and universities are designing new business-oriented programs and classes to keep pace with students’ rising interest. The St. Mary’s business school started the Entrepreneurs Scholars Program five years ago in response to a campus trend they saw on a national scale. Students from 15 different majors across campus have taken part in the specialized program, which strives to develop the entrepreneurial ideas of non-traditional business students, says president and professor Dr. Brooke Envick. Students take fall and spring courses focused on experiential learning outside the classroom, supplementing the curriculum with local seminars and workshops, two domestic trips, and an international venture to test their ideas.
“There are students who don’t see themselves in a traditional or corporate job, which is how a lot of your basic entrepreneurship programs start,” said Envick.
Why the sudden rise in young, innovative thinkers who want to break the mold? Though most 18-25 year-olds are familiar with the company-and-career lifestyle modeled by their parents, they’ve also grown up with technology at their fingertips in a time when technological entrepreneurs have been celebrated. Stories about innovators like Bill Gates and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have been stamped onto young minds since they made their first million. Twenty-somethings are also looking at our dismal market and realizing that the solution to America’s unprecedented economic woes won’t be quick or easy.
In his second book, The Audacity of Hope, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama writes, “If we want an innovation economy, one that generates more Googles each year, then we have to invest in our future innovators.” An encouraging trend is the fact that young entrepreneurs seem to be pursuing their goals out of a desire to make a difference in a changing world.
“What I’m seeing with this generation is that it isn’t about making money or being independent,” said Envick. “They kind of have this innate drive to make their mark and make things better, whether it be environmentally, socially, or even beyond that.”
Ford echoed Envick’s sentiments and said that there are many opportunities out there to take a small idea, work exceptionally hard on it, and see it to fruition.
“Those ideas are meant to make life better, and that’s something I think more young people focus on right now, particularly in the technology sector,” said Ford. “These things add value to people’s lives, and the innovators feel like they’re doing something significant for society as well.”
Fortunately for students, the college campus is an exceptionally fertile environment in which to start a business. The creative atmosphere breeds new ideas, pairing the resources of seasoned professors with a market of eager consumers. Entrepreneurs are innately risk-takers, and students are often willing to shoulder more risk because they’re not generally constrained by obligations that arise post-college. Since today’s students have grown up with technology, they regularly utilize the largest low-cost resource we have — the internet — to launch tech-based ventures such as web design and e-commerce while keeping startup costs low.
UTSA senior communications student Douglas Chan saw a void in his immediate market and quickly pursued an online venture to fill it. After dishing out outlandish sums of money for textbooks at UTSA, Chan teamed up with business partner and fellow UTSA student Eugene McLaurin to create booktradenow.com, a website that facilitates textbook trading among college students for a nominal fee.
“We really felt a burnt hole in our pockets with the rising cost of textbooks,” said Chan. He and McLaurin say that the UTSA bookstore doesn’t meet the promised 50-percent buy-back rate for textbooks. Chan cites an example of a friend who received $8-10 for a book that she paid $150 for at the beginning of the semester, and speaks of courses that require a slightly different version of the previous semester’s book. “We don’t think they keep up their commitment, so we wanted to do something,” said Chan.
Chan and McLaurin tapped into the resources and market at their disposal, as should any asipring entrepreneur on a college campus. Dr. Shawn P. Daly, dean of the H-E-B School of Business and Administration at the University of the Incarnate Word, speaks of the value behind utilizing the varied knowledge and first-hand experiences of faculty members.
“With almost any new venture, be it a business or social activity, one of the most important first steps is a networking phenomenon,” said Daly. “That’s networking to look for capital, for knowledge, for experience, and university environments are wonderful for these things.”
Envick encourages students to stay connected with professors even after they leave campus. She talks of former students who’ve kept in contact with her, most recently one who asked her about real-estate-law connections. “The biggest piece of advice I think students need is to make sure they surround themselves with a good network of business professionals, and to use their professors and their professors’ networks to make contact with other people,” said Envick. “The people you surround yourself with make the difference — especially coming right out of college, when you have to rely on other people who have that experience and knowledge.”
Student innovators are arming themselves for the inevitable post-graduate struggle. Instead of pretending our shaky economic structure will regain stability quickly in a volatile global economy, they’re bravely forging ahead to embrace the risks, challenges, and possible payoffs of innovative, yet dicey, ventures. Ford says that his job at MyToons is basically to predict what’s going to happen in the market by being a visionary and looking at trends — that’s a lot of weight, considering that he’s in charge of his employees’ and investors’ futures. “It’s a lot of hard work but it really pays off, because you’re in control of your own destiny,” he said. “To me, that’s the most important thing. If I’m going to make mistakes, they’re my mistakes. And if I’m going to have success, it’s my success.” •
President of mytoons.com
“The biggest obstacle, really, is getting the money for what you need to do. I think that more young people should try to understand where the sources of capital are. In San Antonio, we’re fortunate to have the San Antonio Technology Accelerator Institute — they’re set up to help young entrepreneurs find that source of capital and have ties to all the local angels. These are the kinds of resources young entrepreneurs have to be aware of.”
Owner of T-shirt business Cliché Clothing
“Take baby steps for sure. Don’t over-invest. Don’t expect to get your profit turnaround at all. And not to say that you’re gonna fail automatically, but you have to test your waters before you invest too much.”
“Know who you want to be selling to, who you want to buy your product. When I sold shirts in New York I had 40-year-olds buying my clothing, people I wouldn’t ever expect to buy my shirts. But my mentality at the time was, ‘Why are you buying my shirt and not this person over here,’ and that’s the complete wrong mentality. I wish I had been less ignorant, instead of asking why are you buying and this person’s not, I should be thinking why are you buying from me and how can I sell more.”
San Antonio Technology
The private, non-profit Texas corporation utilizes a single point-of-entry to assist researchers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and other companies in turning their innovations into enterprises.
Emerging Technology Fund
The ETF, created by the Texas Legislature at the urging of Governor Rick Perry, expedites the development and commercialization of new technologies by pairing them with exceptional research talent.
Offers prize packages to student entrepreneurs who impress the judges and win the regional and Global Finals competitions. The total prize package for the 2008 Awards is estimated at over $100,000 in cash, business products, and services.
San Antonio Small Business
Offers integrated, low-cost training and free counseling services to meet the needs of small business owners in San Antonio and surrounding counties.