Can Entrepreneurship Fuel Change?

Entrepreneurship as defined as those in the valley is that of transforming innovations into businesses and of searching for a scalable and profitable business model. As an economics major, a non-techie in the techie world of Silicon Valley, I also view entrepreneurship instinctively in terms of Schumpeter’s creative destruction and in terms of Romer’s interpretation of a residual in the endogenous growth theory. Yet sometimes, we box entrepreneurship by what we know and too often, we forget that entrepreneurship encompasses a wide range of activities.

The intrapreneur who works within his company is an entrepreneur. The social entrepreneur building a non-profit is still an entrepreneur. And high school students looking to make wallets out of laminated pages of old magazines are entrepreneurs too.

And that was I had to come to terms with when I served as a judge for the 5th BUILD Annual Youth Business Plan Competition at the Oakland Technical High School. Sitting at a panel as team after team of high school students pitched their ideas, I was reminded of how entrepreneurship serves as a vehicle for change.

BUILD (www.build.org) runs the nation’s largest youth incubators with a mission of using entrepreneurship to excite and propel disengaged, low-income students through high school to college success. The high school students who were pitching their ideas were students perceived as not “college material”. The Oakland Technical High School is a public high school with a racial makeup of approximately 52% African Americans, 18% Asian and 15% Hispanics. Many of the students are from less privileged communities.

Sitting on the judges’ side of the table was a refreshing experience as I grappled with the decisions of whether an idea deserved funding. At times, their data and research were dodgy and pricing models questionable. Even as I asked difficult questions, I had to remind myself that they were high school students for whom public speaking was a new endeavour.

Yet what I saw were teams of passionate students in the process of gaining self-confidence and learning how to succeed as they pitched simple ideas such as selling snacks at football games and selling scented bags to their peers. These were ideas that were non scalable, but also ideas that would instill pride and leadership skills.

100% of BUILD’s graduates go on to enter college; 80% of them are the first in their family to go to college. Definitely impressive considering that many of these students grow up in the ghetto. The question is, can this be replicated in Singapore?

We have a similar problem in Singapore. 90% of children from families living in one to three room flats do not make it to university.

What BUILD has proved is that expectations are self-serving. Students with low expectations end up performing poorly. What makes BUILD different from existing youth business plan competitions in Singapore is its targeted approach towards underserved communities as well as easy access to mentors. The BUILD approach may be an answer towards getting more low-income children into our universities.

- Yixiang Liang, NCSV18