As the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom nears, black leaders should add another item to the agenda: entrepreneurship. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, lots of young black kids like me were prepared to get good jobs and use our careers to change the system and open up more opportunities for others to succeed. Today's kids need another doorway to success. Besides getting good jobs, they need to start good companies and they don't need to wait until they are in their 20s or 30s to do it.
Sir Kenneth Robinson's TED Talk, "How Schools Kill Creativity," has had more than 17 million views; the animated version of his ideas has had more than 10 million. He believes that the longer students spend in school, the fewer risks they are willing to take and the less creative they become, which will hurt all of us in the modern economy. Peter Theil, one of the cofounders of PayPal, has a similar belief and funded 20 young people under the age of 20 to drop out of college for two years and start companies.
There is some evidence that these men are right. Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook in his Harvard dorm room and David Karp dropped out of high school to found his first company. He later sold another company, Twitter, for $1.1 billion at 26.
Odds are most people won't found a billion dollar company, but they surely won't if they never start even a small company. In this new economic environment, small and medium sized businesses do a lot of the hiring and research shows that minorities and women business owners tend to hire other minorities and women. With a black unemployment rate of 12.6 percent and a Latino unemployment rate of 9.4 percent, the country could use as many minority entrepreneurs as possible.
Of course young minorities need to learn the digital skills necessary for the tech world, but there are people addressing that problem. Groups like Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code and CodeNow are focused on teaching minorities the skills for digital literacy. Historically Black Colleges and Universities have robust computer science programs and, according to the Morehouse Research Institute, schools such as Strayer University, DeVry University and the University of Phoenix are the top producers of black males with computer science and math degrees in the country.
These digital literates need three things to succeed in business: good ideas the market will buy; the will to create and grow companies; and the financing to bring their ideas to life. Let's leave coming up with good ideas to them.
Parents, schools, faith institutions and community groups can focus on developing their will to compete. Part of that encouragement means giving kids the room to forgo law school or take a year off to follow their passions.
As a child, I grew annoyed at adults constantly asking what I wanted to do when I grew up and began giving them a smart-aleck answer that dumbfounded most: "I want to be a garbage man." Without missing a beat my mother responded, "All I ask is that you be the best garbage man there is."
I am not a parent, but there is something to giving kids the freedom to explore their passions. Fifteen years or so after my "garbage man" remark, my parents let me leave college to work for Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign and I've spent 20 years exploring opportunities that have grown out of that experience.
When it comes to finding the money to start companies, all hands need to be on deck. Families might explore using the equity in their homes to fund good ideas. Historically Black Colleges and Universities should start more incubators on campus that marry up science students with business leaders to see what they come up with. There are a few private organizations and angel investor networks that have taken on this challenge. The White House should host conferences targeting young entrepreneurs and use their convening power to bring them together with investors. There is a lot of work to be done on for everybody.
Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream Speech," America should revel in the progress we have made, redouble our efforts to tackle the problems that still exist and then focus on the future. More black, Latino and women owned businesses will help even up the playing field in politics and economics over the next half century.
Corrected 8/26/13: A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to DeVry University as an institute.