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Innovators and Entrepreneurs - the Long Game

From Shark Tank to The Profit, incubators to accelerators to venture investing, the public seems to be more attuned to the risks and rewards of entrepreneurship than ever before. It’s not just a passing trend. In fact, the Kauffman Foundation estimates that 85 percent of all net new job creation comes from startup companies and small businesses.  Furthermore, roughly 99% of all U.S. employers are small businesses and they employ over 50% of our entire workforce.

However, the focus on driving new startups, establishing accelerators for startups, and deploying capital to invest in these startups is what I call “the short game.”  One of the less acknowledged components of a thriving startup ecosystem is the focus on developing entrepreneurial talent beginning in elementary school and continuing throughout all stages of the formal education process. It is vitally important that teachers, parents and students of all ages understand that there are viable career paths to entrepreneurship, and that even established companies in virtually every industry thrive when they have a steady flow of smart, innovative talent upon which to build their companies. 

This is what I call, “The Long Game.”

At the Conductor – a public-private partnership that launched in November 2016 between the University of Central Arkansas and Startup Junkie Consulting – the key strategies include one-on-one consulting with entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs of all ages and all stages, high-impact programming, and a powerful mentor network.  In addition, the Conductor manages the UCA Makerspace, where a large portion of our “clients” are elementary, secondary and college students.

Conductor and Startup Junkie look to partner with communities across the state so that we can make resources more readily available from one community to the other within Arkansas while building awareness and programs that continue to develop Arkansas’ talent pipeline – a pipeline that is Job Ready, regardless of whether that job is in a skilled trade, a startup venture, or an established company.

The Governor’s initiative on computer science has catapulted our state forward in thinking about how to proliferate the development of coding skills among young people. In addition, there are career and technical education options available in most secondary and postsecondary schools  where engineering, health sciences, agriculture, business and other trade and industry training programs are growing Arkansas’ talent pipeline.

Of equal importance are programs, partnerships, and courses that equip K-12 students with experiences in entrepreneurship, innovative thinking, financial literacy and interpersonal skills necessary for career success.  One of the first partnerships established by the Conductor was with the Junior Achievement of Arkansas, a volunteer-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring and preparing young people to succeed in a global economy. The objective is to catalyze multi-generational creative collisions among students, mentors and faculty.  In response to industry input, career and technical courses are embedding interpersonal skills into the curriculum and programs such as Jobs for Arkansas’s Graduates (JAG), and our Career and Technical Student Organizations (CTSOs) incorporate leadership and interpersonal skills training in student conferences and competitions.

Some might question whether innovation and entrepreneurship can really be taught. The short answer is yes! While it’s true that some people are more comfortable than others with the uncertainty and additional risks associated with entrepreneurship, the specific disciplines of innovation and entrepreneurship can absolutely be taught, demonstrated, mentored and otherwise fostered.  

At the end of the day, innovators and entrepreneurs are vital to the long-term health of our economy. While we know that helping adult entrepreneurs during all stages of their ventures is a critical path to building a sustainable venture ecosystem, that’s more of the short game – chipping and putting our way to success, one venture at a time. The long game, however, is in developing the innovative, entrepreneurial talent of our youth, from elementary through high school and college.  That long game will pay huge dividends in virtually every job market.

(Article written by Jeff Standridge, Ed.D., Career Education and Workforce Development Board Member)

(Photo: Jeff Standridge)
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