Meeting Two Entrepreneurship Challenges

As often happens, two recent articles on similar topics have sparked a post. In this case, it’s “A Lesson in Entrepreneurship from a Doll” and “Businesspeople, Educators Seek Ways to Teach Students Entrepreneurship,” both articles by Ruth Simon in The Wall Street Journal. How to increase the number of young people starting new companies that boost the economy is a hot topic, as is getting more women to start some of those companies. So what are the problems in meeting these two entrepreneurship challenges?

Beyond Getting a Job

According to Ms. Simon, the first difficulty is that our typical American educational structure prepares students to go out in the world and get a job. It doesn’t offer enough creative stimulation, hands-on tinkering, and opportunities to meet challenges and to think of new solutions. That sounds pretty accurate to me. I’m good at geography because every classroom had a map of the world on the wall. I spent a lot of class time bored out of my skull and staring at that map. I would have jumped at the chance to get into a more creative, project-based, work-study group that incorporated multiple disciplines.

Students tinkering outside the classroom

Students tinkering outside the classroom

I also hated math because it was too abstract and unattached to any reality that I could see. But if I had needed math to calculate components of a business challenge,

it would have been a different story. Imagine learning history, law, organization, writing, statistics, accounting, presentation skills, web design, marketing and other disciplines because that’s what a team would need to figure out what business to start, what product to develop, what markets to serve, and how to get the message out. That kind of engagement would have kept me occupied and enthusiastic!

Embracing Risk

Ms Simon also asserts that today’s young people have a low tolerance for the kind of risk that goes into starting a company and they lack the confidence needed to do so. She quotes Ted Ganchiff, founder of the Science and Entrepreneurship Exchange, who said, “We are creating generations of people who are terrified to make a mistake.” For my opinion on this, see my posts on free-range children and their beneficent nemeses, helicopter parents.

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rubber-mat playground

A rubber-mat playground

You don’t raise kids who are willing to take a risk, make a mistake, and learn from the experience by removing all risk from their lives, along with decision-making opportunities and chances to solve their own problems.

My husband calls this the rubber-mat playground approach to life. Playgrounds used to have a foundation of sand, gravel or even concrete. If you fell, you scraped your knees or your hands or both. It hurt. You learned to be careful and not repeat the experience. If you were really reckless or stupid, you fell and broke a bone. That really taught a kid to respect his environment. Now rubber mats ensure that no one gets hurt and, thus, no one learns to be careful. If all you experience from a fall is that you’ll bounce back from it, then there’s no reason to behave differently.

Helicopter parents who rush to make every decision for their kids just exacerbate the problem. Young people not only don’t learn to make decisions, they don’t learn that they should be making their own decisions. Given a problem, they turn automatically to Mom and Dad to fix it, assuming that Mom and Dad haven’t already jumped in with solutions and resources. Thus the kids abdicate their own growth process and eventual maturity.

No wonder this generation lacks the confidence to take a risk. You learn confidence by becoming competent at things, whether sports, academics, the school newspaper, a part-time job, or just doing chores. Once you master a single thing, you’re motivated to go on and learn more. Once you have met one challenge, you want to tackle another. Once you have made one mistake, you learn to try something else. Kids who never get to take that first essential step never make it to step two. And, oh, what will they do when Mom and Dad aren’t around anymore?

Introducing Grace Thomas

American Girl's Grace Thomas doll in her bakery

American Girl’s Grace Thomas in her bakery

American Girl Dolls is addressing the problem of too few female entrepreneurs by creating the Grace Thomas doll. Grace is a girl who wants to start her own small business—a bakery.

Her story on the American Girl website says, “This enthusiastic girl loves to bake with friends and invent new recipes. Then a trip to Paris inspires her to try new things—including turning her passion for baking into a business. Will she learn the best way to succeed?”

I applaud American Girl’s initiative—and how they created a more complex toy than Mattel’s Entrepreneur Barbie. The latter comes stylishly dressed and equipped with a briefcase, tablet and smartphone, thus communicating that entrepreneurship is a matter of simply accessorizing with the right consumer goods. Grace Thomas has three books about how she starts her own business with two friends. According to Ms. Simon, her story “illustrates what’s needed to run a bakery, such as registering the business and obtaining a license.” I would have gone on to show how math is needed to calculate how a big a shop she can afford, the business’s profit margin, salaries with tax, and the food / cost percent, for example.

I also could have wished that our girl Grace had started a less “girly” business, like a software company or a website optimization firm. But, then, Grace (priced at $120) comes with a variety of expensive accessories. These include a full miniature bakery ($500) as well as a baking set ($68) and a pastry cart ($150). It’s hard to accessorize a software company with such pricey additions unless you include a Foosball table, that quintessentially nerdboy toy, or a fancy car with a private parking space. I also would have like accessories priced so that girls could earn money and buy them on their own instead of begging parents and grandparents to provide them. That would have taught another important lesson.

Nevertheless, Grace Thomas is a step in the right direction. Maybe American Girl will some day come out with a physicist doll, a surgeon doll, an architect doll and a CEO doll. Maybe parents will stop hovering over their kids and start allowing them to grow up. Maybe it will stop snowing in Massachusetts. I’m not holding my breath, though.

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