Why big businesses should be investing in young entrepreneurs

The CEO and Chair of Futurpreneur argue in a new report that large companies have lots to learn from upstarts

Young entrepreneur posing in front of her coffee shop

(Eternity in an Instant/Getty)

Corporations need to stop simply providing jobs and instead incubate entrepreneurial talent, according to a new report.

Julia Deans and John Risley, respectively the CEO and Chair of Futurpreneur Canada, produced “The Virtuous Cycle: Why Large Firms Should Nurther Young Entrepreneurs,” in conjunction with the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.

Deans and Risley make the case that large corporations need to foster more entrepreneurship among young people. But they also note that starting a business could be the way out of a double-edged demographic problem: young people who are un- or under-employed on one hand, and the generation of small business owners on the verge of retirement. If we play our cards right, they say, one problem solves the other:

Given persistently high rates of youth unemployment—at 13.6 percent, more than double the national average—selecting an entrepreneurial path represents not only an acceptable choice for youth, but a strategic decision. Futurpreneur Canada works with aspiring and established young entrepreneurs, with many citing a desire to rely on their own skills and persistence rather than an uncertain job market. Such a realization represents a tremendous opportunity; over the next decade, half of the small business owners aged 45 and over will retire. If we encourage young people to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams, they will fill the gaps in providing goods and services created by a generation of retiring entrepreneurs. The economic and demographic conditions in Canada are ripe for a proactive strategy to support the growth of a vibrant entrepreneurial sector.

That echoes what Risley told Canadian Business recently in an illuminating interview about mentorship, when he recalled his own experience starting a business and needing advice:

The power of business mentorship to me resonated with me when I started [selling seafood] back in the ’70s. I was lucky to have someone I could call on to give me some industry advice. I was a guy who flunked out of university and never wanted to work for anybody. I’m not sure those are necessarily good credentials for starting a business, but they were my credentials.

This guy, Mac Swim, happened to own a building, and a mutual friend introduced me to him. I was looking for something to do in between failed occupations, if you like. He made the building available to me at no initial cost. He said, “Get your business up and running, and then pay me rent.” So it started at that very junior level. And then, simply because he was a very senior guy in age and experience, he was able to provide me access to business knowledge and experience: You know what happens when the bank turns down your first loan application? Where are you going to find some outside equity? And then how do you deal with the inevitable business problems every business faces in terms of finding good people?

Whether you’re running a small or a large business, the CEO Council report is worth a read. The entrepreneurial spirit Deans and Risley speak so highly of isn’t just about startups, after all: any business can harness it.