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Opinion

Hope for US economy: Young black men as entrepreneurs

Young African American men, especially ex-offenders, face high obstacles to employment. That’s where entrepreneurship training comes in. If just 1 in 3 small businesses hired one employee, the US would be at full employment. Young men of color can be crucial to this progress.

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Once students have prepared and pitched their business ideas, this program gives them a platform to incubate their ventures. Students are supported throughout the process with coaches, tutors, mentors, and sponsors. A pilot Entrepreneur’s Academy program is launching this May in Charlotte, N.C., in collaboration with the local Urban League.

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The high-tech, high-growth model of Silicon Valley and Alley has so engrained the popular notion of what it means to be an entrepreneur, that it’s hard to imagine young, inner-city, black men playing a vital role in America’s entrepreneurial activity and innovation.

Despite this entrepreneurial divide, black business development has quite a compelling story. According to the Census Bureau, during the period from 2002 to 2007 and before the Great Recession struck, the growth rate of black-owned companies was more than triple the national rate of 18 percent. Revenue generated by black-owned companies increased more than 55 percent to $137.5 billion. Many of those were businesses like Carpenter’s Super Clean Professional Janitorial Services.

“Black-owned businesses continued to be one of the fastest-growing segments of our economy, showing rapid growth in both the number of businesses and total sales during the time period,” said Thomas Mesenbourg, then-deputy director of the Census Bureau. Not surprisingly, the nation’s largest cities were homes to the bulk of these black-owned companies.

However, these same cities face a parallel conundrum of what to do with their population of young men of color. In one particular attempt to address this, New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in August 2011 the Young Men’s Initiative. It zeroes in on the issues of education, criminal justice, and employment among young African American and Latino males. Yet as significant as this initiative is, it omits entrepreneurial education as a critical path to self-employment and job creation.

Tackling the country’s current unemployment woes requires all hands on deck. According to the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, if just 1 in 3 Main Street businesses like Carpenter’s hired a single employee, the US would be at full employment. Young, inner-city men can be crucial to this process. They must be included in a solution or we miss a real opportunity by ignoring the role they could play in enterprise development. Just think of all of the people touched by Lawrence Carpenter.

The scene is set: a terrible job market and high unemployment for young men of color, an increasing number of ex-offenders reentering their communities, the high cost of corrections and recidivism. At the same time, local and national groups are striving to enlarge the ranks of small businesses and boost entrepreneurship. The concept behind City Startup Labs is clearly one whose time has come.

Henry Rock is executive director of City Startup Labs.

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