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Young Entrepreneurs Remake the World

10 May 2011
Portrait photo of Ankur Jain (Courtesy of Ankur Jain)

Ankur Jain of the Kairos Society

By Ankur Jain

Ankur Jain is the founder and chairman of the Kairos Society, an organization that helps top young entrepreneurs from around the world start high-impact, high-growth companies. Jain graduated in May 2011 from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and subsequently launched a new venture to help startups expand their business into foreign markets.

Entrepreneurship can launch you on a path to change the world. But closer to home, entrepreneurship can give you the freedom to transform the lives of your family and people in your community. What better reasons are there to start your own business, except, maybe, the satisfaction of being your own boss?

I know what you’re thinking: Entrepreneurship isn’t easy. It takes a high-powered education, lots of money, and lots of top-level connections. But in my experience launching the Kairos Society, a foundation that provides support for student entrepreneurs, I’ve seen that every day, all over the world, young people without any of the advantages considered crucial to success are starting businesses big and small. What they do have is the passion and determination to make their business dreams happen and to change the world, no matter how many roadblocks they run into and how often they’re told “That’s impossible!”

Hemant Sahal, a 22-year-old student at Vellore Institute of Technology in Vellore, India, is moving ahead with a business idea that came to him while riding his bicycle through poor villages near his home. Sahal noticed that villagers were suffering from heavy metal poisoning caused by tainted drinking water. Most existing water filters did not remove these metals, and those that did were too expensive for local people. Through his new company, CALLMAT, Sahal is developing inexpensive treatments for removing toxic chemicals from the water supply.

In many ways, this is the perfect time for young people like Sahal to experiment with entrepreneurial ventures. Governments of emerging economies are seeing the value of helping citizens realize their dreams of business success. More efficiently than governments, entrepreneurs create jobs and increase prosperity, when they are free to do so. The Internet has collapsed time and distance barriers. And young people everywhere, no matter where they are on the economic or education ladder, can take their part in the entrepreneurial revolution.

On the face of it, becoming an entrepreneur can sound scary. I won’t lie to you: It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, yet also the most exhilarating. There is nothing like working for yourself, being in charge of your destiny, and making life better for yourself and the people around you. In many ways, entrepreneurship is one of the least risky things you can do — because control is in your hands.

If you’re fired up about the idea of becoming an entrepreneur — perhaps you already have an idea for a business — don’t get discouraged by the obstacles you believe are in front of you. For instance, your age. You or those around may think that you’re too young to be taken seriously in business. But that attitude devalues what young people can bring to the business world: namely, fresh ideas and open viewpoints.

In 2010, the X Prize Foundation, which rewards people who create smart ideas for solving tough technical and scientific challenges, ran a competition to develop street-ready vehicles that would average more than 100 miles on a gallon of gas. In the group of finalists was a team from a Pennsylvania high school — the students submitted a hybrid gasoline-electric car using lithium-ion batteries based on a modified Ford Focus. These teens didn’t need years of training in automobile mechanics — they had passion for the project, and they had the desire to make it happen.

Money, or lack thereof, can be an imagined obstacle to starting a business. While startup capital is great if you can get it, plenty of businesses are launched without it. For instance, businesses based solely on the Internet don’t need office space, supply chains or other things that normally require startup money.

If you need startup capital, there may be financial resources from your local or national governments that you’re not aware of, so it’s smart to ask around. Start-Up Chile is one such resource. It funds and supports entrepreneurs from all over the world who come to Chile to get their companies off the ground. As governments see how important entrepreneurship is to the success of their local economies, they are setting up programs to guide and even fund startups.

You may believe that you can’t launch a business because you don’t have partners or mentors. Thanks to the Internet, you no longer have to worry about finding people at home to team up with you or give you advice. You have a wealth of advice, support, and potential partners at your fingertips. You can build a team, find suppliers and manufacturers, and do other things online. So it doesn’t matter whether the proper talent or partner is nearby.

As for what it takes to start a business, think about it this way: Entrepreneurship is about solving a problem, not starting a company. A couple of years ago, two friends attending the University of Southern California saw that other students were buying fixed-gear bicycles, which were very expensive — typically US$1,000. The two friends, Jonathan Shriftman and Jake Medwell, were convinced the bikes could be made more cheaply, but they had no manufacturing experience. In fact, they had no experience running a business, creating a business plan, or any of the elements you think you’d need to start a company.

Nevertheless, they searched the Internet and emailed companies around the world, asking if they could manufacture similar bikes at lower cost. They discovered that they could have the bikes made for US$310, and a business was born. They placed orders and started selling bikes from their new company, Solé Bicycles. In March 2011, Inc. magazine named Jonathan and Jake to its list of “America’s Coolest College Start-Ups.” Pretty amazing for two guys just barely into their 20s.

Jonathan and Jake asked a lot of questions before finding the right partners for the business. You need to get into the same frame of mind to become an entrepreneur. Don’t be shy about asking people — many people — for information or connections. Sometimes we are afraid to ask for favors but, trust me, the entrepreneurial world is built on people helping each other.

You also need to believe in your idea and lose your fear of being told no, because you’re going to hear no a lot. That’s OK — it’s part of the process of starting a business. You can expect to be told no about a hundred times before someone actually says yes. Find a few people that believe in you and keep them close — they can support you when you’ve heard nothing but a flurry of no’s.

Most importantly, don’t ever let hearing no stop you from dreaming big and setting your goals high. When we first started the Kairos Society, we were a small group of 18-year-old students at the University of Pennsylvania with a desire to create a new culture of entrepreneurship. We had a vision of being the most influential entrepreneurship group in the United States. Everyone told us we were wasting our time. But six months later, we had 500 student entrepreneurs on the historic USS Intrepid aircraft carrier listening and talking to former President Clinton and Bill Gates Sr. We persisted day in and day out, and this relentless execution of our plans has now allowed Kairos to expand around the world. In Greek, the word kairos means the “right moment” and, for each one of you, there truly couldn’t be a better moment to become an entrepreneur.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)

Mother giving water to child from public water source (AP Images)

Water from a public tank in New Delhi, India, may be clean; in other places it may not be.