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Empowering Youth through Entrepreneurship: Africa to Chicago

RESEARCH Working Paper by Nicole Robinson
 A group of youth attend a training on welding at the technical school in Mellit, North Darfur.
Albert Gonzalez Farran

This paper offers actions businesses, governments, foundations, and community organizations can explore to ramp up ecosystems for future youth entrepreneurs.

According to the International Labor Organization’s Global Employment Trends for Youth report, global youth unemployment is estimated at 73 million. According to a report by global consulting firm EY, roughly $150 billion a year in productivity is lost globally because of youth unemployment. Although these young people have gained in terms of educational achievement, the employment gap continues to widen, which has helped fuel resentment and political action in the form of the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter movements. Africa presents the biggest challenge and opportunity, with nearly 200 million youths who are willing to work but who have grown up in economies that lack sufficient traditional employment options.

One of Africa’s rising stars, Nairobi, Kenya, has been recognized for its leadership in attempting to combat youth unemployment through entrepreneurship. Most notably, in 2015, Nairobi was home to the sixth annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit, an event designed to empower entrepreneurs at all stages of business development. The country’s leadership in entrepreneurship is driven by an economy in which national youth unemployment is 17 percent, with estimates in Nairobi of over 30 percent. Although Kenya offers free primary education, improving quality remains an aspiration, as many students graduate with poor basic literacy and math skills. Students from families with more resources choose private institutions over a crippled public system. Despite having strong social and family networks, some youths are enticed by petty crimes, gangs, and prostitution. Additionally, via gangs and militias, youths are often pawns of politicians seeking political gain by paying them to incite violence.

Nearly 8,000 miles away in Chicago, the third-largest city in America, the situation is equally troubling. Unemployment for those 16 to 24 has reached 18 percent and is a troubling 30.7 percent for black youths. Even more staggering, 47 percent of 20-to-24-year-old black youths were out of school and out of work in 2014. This is alarmingly high compared to 20 percent of Hispanic men and 10 percent of white men in the same age group. Additionally, violence in Chicago takes a particular toll on youths: for the five-year period 2009–2014, people 18 to 29 accounted for 51.9 percent of the city’s homicide victims. Lack of opportunity, unstable family structures, substance abuse, mental health problems, and education-system failures have contributed to an environment that makes young people vulnerable to gangs, crime, and violence.

Although these two global cities are geographically oceans apart, their social, economic, and education realities are strikingly similar. These shared challenges present a shared opportunity for government, community, and business stakeholders in each city to create an environment where young people are inspired by entrepreneurship and leverage it as a tool to build the skills that lead to a small enterprise or a springboard to entry-level work. As part of a larger, underdeveloped-country economy, Nairobi’s youths have become entrepreneurs out of necessity. An entrepreneur by necessity requires different skills and supports than an entrepreneur who has identified a significant market opportunity and plans to grow a business and create many formal jobs for others. The Kenyan government, the World Bank, and leading non-governmental organizations have undertaken various creative efforts to support youth entrepreneurship, including creating a 2030 Vision long-range plan and establishing a Youth Enterprise Fund to help develop and support new ideas. Although some of these inspiring plans have experienced some challenges, there is merit in exploring the glimmers of progress achieved and how they might inspire leaders some 8,000 miles away. Chicago’s rich business and entrepreneurial metropolis are better positioned to creatively and effectively invest in youth enterprise in ways that lead to real opportunities.

Helpful insights into a robust entrepreneurship ecosystem is reflected in the United Nations’ support of the G20 Young Entrepreneurs Alliance, the Sustainable Development Goals, and most recently the UN Conference on Trade and Development. With these insights as a guide, Chicago’s pathway to creating an inclusive entrepreneurship ecosystem in which underserved youth entrepreneurs are successful resides in the execution of three key actions: (1) scaling up youth entrepreneurship learning, (2) transforming business mentorships, and (3) infusing funds to develop entrepreneurs and their ideas.

The increasing momentum around youth entrepreneurship sets the stage for Chicago to reflect on existing efforts with an eye toward envisioning the future entrepreneurship ecosystem for young people. The optimal ecosystem will be truly inclusive and reach beyond those who have traditionally had easier access to entrepreneurship resources and thinking to support the typically underrepresented. This paper will offer actions businesses, governments, foundations, and community organizations can explore to ramp up these ecosystems for future youth entrepreneurs.

About the Author
Nicole Robinson
Senior Director, Community Involvement, Mondelēz International; President, Mondeléz Foundation
Nicole Robinson has spent her career building a bridge between communities, individuals, and corporations. In her current roles, she leads community programs designed to promote good nutrition, healthy lifestyles, and inspire volunteer service. These award-winning programs span the globe touching five continents, while reaching underserved and under-represented neighborhoods.