This is the time of year when 2012 prediction lists abound. I am struck by how many lists have included some reference to a surge in American entrepreneurship during the next year. Entrepreneurs are clearly being counted upon to act as one of the centerpieces of America’s economic recovery.
The educational and networking opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs have never been more robust. The question is, however, are the character formation and leadership opportunities equally developed? You see, entrepreneurs need both skill and will.
Entrepreneurship is challenging work. It has been rightly described as an idea in search of a business model. The typical startup encounters numerous course corrections.
Yet, through all the experimentation and long hours, successful entrepreneurs never lose their ultimate bearings. They know where they want to go, even if they aren’t exactly sure how to get there. They are undeterred by inevitable setbacks.
In November, the Honorable Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas visited my Founders’ Constitution class at Grove City College. Memorably, Justice Thomas told the students, “True north is always north.”
In recent months, the media has focused heavily on protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street. These movements, led primarily by young people, reflect populist anger and frustration. But merely protesting capitalism’s ills will not alter the trajectory of the economy or provide more opportunities for a concerned generation of American workers.
Truly great reform movements translate enthusiasm and passion into action. They have second and third acts. They launch people into positions of influence in political, business, and philanthropic life. Crossing that bridge usually requires finding “true north” in the night sky.
One thing is clear—many young people want more control over their own career paths. They want more purpose and meaning from work life. All are available from entrepreneurial endeavors. However, there is no entitlement in entrepreneurship. That’s where the will part comes in.
I am optimistic, though, that America’s young people can rise to meet the challenge. An increasing number of colleges and universities are emphasizing ethical capitalism in business and entrepreneurship curriculums. There is also a renaissance of faith-and-work scholarship going on at leading institutions like Princeton and Notre Dame.
Very quietly, there is also another powerful tailwind starting to blow. After nearly nine years of war in Iraq, some 40,000 soldiers returned home this holiday season. More will follow from Afghanistan. That means something more than just bad European loans and cheap imports will also be landing on America’s shores in 2012.
As these troops rotate home, some will leave the service after multiple tours. For those that do, a business world in need of reform awaits.
Returning veterans are steeped in entrepreneurial thinking. They share a discipline and focus that few can match. They are accustomed to numerous adaptions and skilled at working within a small, dedicated team. And most importantly, they arrive with a deeply-held sense of “true north.”
The Occupy movement has rightly called attention to the risks of self-indulgent behavior and an ego-centric spirit. But solving these excesses will require, among other things, retooled business leadership.
Our military personnel bring home a portable track record of service to others. This consistent dedication to something more than oneself strikes me as pretty darn good preparation for putting customers, employees, and shareholders first.
So, it is my sincere hope that our country does, indeed, experience an entrepreneurial renaissance this year. There should be no shortage of talented, high character, young people who are eager to contribute. If 2011 was the year of the protestor, here’s hoping that 2012 will be the year of “dreamers that do!”
Dr. Craig Columbus is a fellow for entrepreneurship and innovation with The Center for Vision & Values. He is also the executive director of The Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation and chair of the Department of Entrepreneurship at Grove City College.