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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.

By Henry Rock / January 11, 2013

A job seeker leaves his contact information with a potential employer during a job fair in New York on Dec. 12, 2012. Op-ed contributor Henry Rock says 'an alternative education that prepares [young at-risk men of color] to launch their own businesses can have far more impact...than other traditional forms of job readiness or workforce training.'

Mary Altaffer/AP/File

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New York

Lawrence Carpenter knew he always had an entrepreneurial spirit, but he was in the wrong business – the business of selling drugs.

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After his second stint in prison, it became clear to him: “I made mistakes in my life, and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in poverty because of those mistakes. I also knew that I had a criminal record, and looking at things realistically, it was going to be pretty difficult finding a job anywhere. I didn’t want to use that as an excuse. I knew that in order for me to realize the goals I had financially, my only option was to start my own business and create my own market.”

The Durham, N.C. native set about the task of starting Super Clean Professional Janitorial Services, a commercial cleaning service. “I wanted something that would get me as far away from the streets as possible, but where there wouldn’t be a limit or a cap on how much money I could make.” Now the sky seems to be the limit for Mr. Carpenter, as Super Clean is generating more than $2.5 million in sales per year and employs more than 70 full and part-time employees.

It’s the Lawrence Carpenters that organizations like ours – City Startup Labs – want to motivate, train, and deploy in inner cities around the country. This new non-profit was created to take at-risk young African American men, including ex-offenders, and teach them entrepreneurship, while creating a new set of role models and small business ambassadors along the way. City Startup Labs contends that an alternative education that prepares these young men to launch their own businesses can have far more impact with this population than other traditional forms of job readiness or workforce training.

Today’s economic climate allows employers their pick of candidates, leaving few options for anyone with a record. Young black men, who’ve had no brushes with the law, still routinely face real barriers in getting on a job ladder’s lowest rung.

According to a 2005 Princeton study, “Discrimination in Low Wage Labor Markets,” young white high school graduates were nearly twice as likely to receive positive responses from employers as equally qualified black job seekers. Even without criminal records, black applicants had low rates of positive responses – about the same as the response rate for white applicants with criminal records.

This is where entrepreneurship comes in. For example, a report done by the Justice Policy Institute states that, “…recidivism is higher for those persons who are unable to obtain employment after leaving prison and imposes a high cost on society; and yet employment opportunities are especially limited for ex-convicts. Thus self-employment would be a viable alternative for ex-offenders, at least for those with above average entrepreneurial aptitude…” Someone like a Lawrence Carpenter.

The City Startup Labs approach is to conduct an Entrepreneur’s Academy, offering accelerated instruction to inner-city young men (usually 18 to 24 years old) who aspire to start and operate their own businesses. Students progress through a set of modules, including a core curriculum provided by the Kauffman Foundation. Among other things, this curriculum builds a working knowledge of the fundamentals of planning and managing a business.

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