By Madeleine Post, @madeleine_post
America’s millennial entrepreneurs are dreamers — and quite successful dreamers at that. Americans often assume that most entrepreneurs are smart, prepared, and passionate. 75% of successful entrepreneurs ranked their academic performance within the top 30% of their high school class, with a majority of 52.4% ranking in the top 10%.
But what if a young entrepreneur is none of these things?
What if that entrepreneur is illiterate, broke, and fearful about what the future holds?
And what if — almost miraculously — this entrepreneur emerges successful nonetheless, unlike the 8 in 10 supposedly ‘prepared’ millennial entrepreneurs whose startups inevitably fail?
These are the entrepreneurs who are motivated by necessity, rather than an American dream. They hail from various points on our globe, and they are the men and women whose work reveals the cold, hard truth about entrepreneurship: it’s necessity that makes a venture foolproof.
Prostitution is a mounting issue in Uganda, a virtually normalized trade for many women (a good number of whom are single mothers) despite the fact that it’s illegal. In order to enable women from the Ugandan village of Masese to turn away from dangerous lifestyles and earn safe, stable incomes for their families, humanitarian activist Katie Davis initiated the Masese Women’s Beading Circle. During Beading Circle meetings, young mothers of Masese create beautiful, hand-crafted jewelry from recycled magazine paper. Aside from the fact that this venture keeps Ugandan women out of prostitution, the Beading Circle provides an opportunity for the women of Masese to enter into community and friendship with one another. Breadwinners and single parents, these Ugandan women are the true feminists and entrepreneurial leaders of our age.
The Masese Women’s Beading Circle provides a clear example of entrepreneurship arising from necessity. Like the women of Uganda, Brazil’s street vendors (half of whom are women) illustrate the deep aspect of necessity surrounding their business ventures. Yet ambition also characterizes these venders as pushy, in-your-face, and (as a result) looked down upon. While tourists and white collar professionals often complain about Brazil’s street vendors, they overlook the progressive nature of the “informal economy” the vendors comprise. These street venders have established unions, cooperatives, and play an authentic commercial role in Brazil’s economy, where 13.8% of its population are entrepreneurs.
The U.S. does not totally lack entrepreneurs of necessity. Several years ago I spent a weekend in San Francisco with my aunt and sister. I was shocked to see the number of homeless who occupied just about every block in the city. Yet there was a spirit of hope about these homeless individuals. Most weren’t sleeping on city benches during the day; rather, they had set up stands closer to San Fran’s famous Ferry Building, where they sold everything from water bottles to portrait caricatures. A grandfatherly gentleman with a white beard sat behind one such stand, arranging little wooden toys atop a makeshift countertop. A handwritten sign identified his businesses: “The Fun Zone.” For an urban homeless man or woman to start a business venture represents a huge step toward getting out of chronic homelessness.
We first world millennials often forget about the poverty that often necessitates entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship can often be a ticket out of poverty, leading to self-sustainable economic communities like the Masese Women’s Beading Circle in Uganda, as well as progressive business movements like those on the city streets of Brazil. Entrepreneurship embodies the hope toward a more promising future, as it does for the homeless of San Francisco. The spirit of these entrepreneurs provides an example worth imitating.
We, as middle class first-worlders, often fall into the lie that we are the ones paving the way of progress in this broken world. Perhaps we need to learn a thing or two from the real entrepreneurs of our day and age: the entrepreneurs whose ventures hang on a thread and can often determine life and death.