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How Best To Encourage Black 'Teenpreneurs'


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. I'm Celeste Headlee. Coming up, it's National Bike to Work Day, but many millennials prefer two wheels to four. Why more 20-somethings are driving less. That's just ahead.

But first, African-American entrepreneurs from all over the country gathered in Columbus, Ohio this week to talk about spurring investment in black-owned businesses. The Black Enterprise Entrepreneur's Conference attracted big names, like basketball-star-turned-businessman Magic Johnson. And there were also a number of aspiring business all-stars looking for tips and inspiration.

Joining me now from the conference is Mike Green. He's the cofounder of the America21 Project, which invests in urban innovation around the nation. And Green has written extensively about ways to make American businesses more inclusive for people of color.

Welcome, Mike.

MIKE GREEN: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: So this is obviously a subject that you've talked about and written about and researched for a very, very long time. Is there an obligation on the part of successful business owners like Magic Johnson? He's from Michigan. Does he have an obligation, then, to go back and help the largely African-American city of Detroit? Or somebody who's from D.C., should they go back and reinvest in cities that have large minority populations?

GREEN: Well, let me say this. There's a crisis occurring across the nation. It's not just Magic's responsibility. It's America's responsibility. The nation needs more successful, high-growth entrepreneurs to compete in a 21st century, fast-paced, knowledge-based, tech-driven global innovation economy.

Unfortunately, black and Hispanic communities are disconnected from these resources and the access points to the innovation economy, even the knowledge of its existence. We don't even speak the language of this new economy, and we're not participating to our fullest extent, and the nation needs to invest in empowering all of its talent in order to sustain our global economic competitiveness.

And I'll give you an example. From 2002 to 2007, black entrepreneurs grew 60 percent. Hispanic entrepreneurs grew 44 percent. That's triple and double the national average. Entrepreneurship in black and Hispanic communities is not foreign. It is inherent within the culture. However, those 1.9 million black-owned businesses that were the result of all that growth produced less than 1 percent GDP. The America that we know today and the economic competitiveness and domination that we've had globally cannot be sustained with so many of our residents, of our citizens producing so little.

HEADLEE: Why is that, Mike? Where is the disconnect? I mean, why is it harder for a black entrepreneur to make it than, you know, my white high school buddy? I mean, what's the difference?

GREEN: The difference is that STEM education is the entry point. Science, technology, engineering and math is the entry point for entrepreneurs that want to participate and actually compete in a tech-driven economy. And without that type of background and without having the access points to the networks that you largely see at Harvard and MIT and Stanford and many of the other research institutions and institutions of innovation, we're not in those circles.

We don't have the academic background. We don't have an understanding. We don't have generational knowledge of the type of entrepreneurship that exists today. We don't have the generational wealth that is passed down that provides the boot-strapping needs of entrepreneurs. We're missing a number of the basic resources that empower entrepreneurs to compete in today's society.

HEADLEE: So we spoke to a young entrepreneur in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her name is Amber Liggett. She started her own business at the age of nine. Let's listen to a clip here of Amber talking about what inspired her.

AMBER LIGGETT: I just remember being three years old and going to the store with my mom and dad. And I'd be in a little shopping buggy, and I would sell little lotion samples to people for a dollar each. And after seeing how receptive people were and that they would actually buy the lotion samples, it showed me that, if I really put my mind to doing it, I could sell anything I want to.

HEADLEE: That is Amber Liggett, founder and CEO of Amber's Amazing Animal Balloons. So that's clearly the next generation here, Mike. What does it take for somebody like Amber Liggett to bridge that divide?

GREEN: I love the youth and their aspirations of entrepreneurship, because with the type of disruption that's occurring, there are no graduates that are going to have a career that spans 30 years and retire. We're going to have to have innovative minds and entrepreneurial mindsets, and we're going to have to imbed that and infuse our youth with that type of aspirational innovation that Amber represents.

The problem we're having is that without an understanding of how to engage and compete in a tech-driven ecosystem that's largely fueled by risk capital and fast-growing start-ups that produce nearly all of the net new jobs in the country, we're not producing jobs. We're creating entrepreneurs, as the data show, but the entrepreneurs are typically sole proprietors, or they're lifestyle entrepreneurs, versus high-growth entrepreneurs that create jobs. And that's what the country needs more of.

HEADLEE: You know, let me ask you: Why single out blacks? Why not encourage all underrepresented entrepreneurs at this conference?

GREEN: Absolutely. We definitely encourage all entrepreneurs, but without an understanding of the needs of black entrepreneurs and the severity of the disparity and the historic problems that have come from being a targeted race of people, we have to address specific cultural problems that impact black Americans in order to empower them, in order to uplift them.

And we have to get them to view themselves and the nation to view black youth through the lens of the value we create, versus the value that we lack. And so there's a need to specifically look at the problems that are impacting black Americans and address those in a way that recognizes the value that's inherent in our landscape.

HEADLEE: And that's what you guys are talking about at the conference in Columbus, Ohio. Mike Green is the cofounder of the America21 Project. Thanks so much, Mike, for joining us.

GREEN: Thank you, Celeste. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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