These are uncertain times. One thing 2016 taught us was that there is dissatisfaction throughout the world with the economy and lack of opportunities. Unfortunately, many have used immigration and the refugee crisis as the scapegoat for the mess the world is in. Some have issued a clarion call for youth to remain hopeful. However, statistics make hope elusive.
- Eight years after high school graduation, less than 40% of community college enrollees earned a credential.
- 89% of first generation college students leave college in six years with no degree.
- “Millennials earn 20 percent less than boomers did at the same stage of life.”
Students are graduating college owing more than they could ever hope to make from a salary. Financial analysts are predicting student loan debt will be the next financial crisis. Kelley Holland noted, “Research has also found that the burden of student debt hinders innovation and entrepreneurship, a core component of the economic prowess of the United States.” For those trying to achieve the American dream, how can they see a way forward? To answer this and other questions, I spoke with innovators Howard Tullman, CEO of 1871, one of the fastest growing incubator programs for entrepreneurs, and Tawfik Sharkasi, former Chief Science & Technology Officer at Wrigley and co-founder of Long Shot Innovation.
If you were never taught financial management and independence, how do you start?
Howard: There is no easy answer, but there are agencies and groups that help people learn basic budgeting and other ways to organize their resources effectively. For millions of students, only some government relief is likely to solve their student debt problems.
Tawfik: Before I answer, I decided to get some facts on education spending. The US spends more money on education than any other country, but in science and math we ranked lower than other developed countries and some developing countries. South Korea and Japan spend approximately 30% less on education than the US, but their students perform at a higher rate. China ranked higher than the US [in math and science]. It spends 2:1 on education over defense. The US spends 7:1 on defense over education. I am not saying that we should not spend money on defense. However, it begs the question, how efficient are we when it comes to spending on defense and education? This is especially relevant when more Americans are killed domestically from gun violence, mass shootings, and drug abuse than from terrorism. Violence can be attributed to a lack of education, economic means, and drug and alcohol abuse. More Americans are killed by these issues than terrorism. Yet, instead of a focus on education, funding for privatized jails has increased. Privatized jails have one incentive – increase shareholder profit. The only way to accomplish that is to put more people in jail. Similar to privatized jails are privatized [for-profit] colleges, like Trump University. For-profit colleges claim to offer cheaper and faster ways to gain a degree with no guarantee of the quality of education. There is a misalignment of priorities with a preference for short term goals. Nations cannot live on the short term but must look for long term sustainment. An unhealthy and uneducated nation is a weak nation.
To address your specific question, it takes a combination of school and family to start the path to financial freedom. My mother was widowed. As a boy, she entrusted me to buy groceries for the house. I had to maximize the budget if I wanted to get extra stuff because I did not have an allowance. I learned the difference between needs and wants and how to budget and bargain. Working in corporate America, many had fancy cars, boats, and club memberships. I did not. A co-worker asked why not? I told him I wanted to pay for my kids’ education so they would not be burdened by debt after graduating college. He said his wife took out loans and saw nothing wrong with making the kids pay for college themselves. I asked why would he allow his children to borrow from the bank at high interest rates and be under debt they can’t afford to pay back [causing the kids to move back home after college]. Instead, why not let your child borrow the money from you at no interest? He said he had not thought about it that way.
At Innovation for the Ages, Howard stated, “People click and share. They don’t read. Kids aren’t learning, they are YouTubing. We need to move forward with experiential learning and teaching life skills via an entrepreneurial curriculum. Not everyone is meant to go to a four year college.” There has been a backlash against intellectuals as elitists. While others are pushing the notion that manufacturing jobs will return. Baby boomers had courses like shop and woodwork in public high schools, teaching valuable trade skills offering an alternative leading to careers as a carpenter, mechanic, electrician, or plumber. These courses are no longer offered in public high schools. Andrew Ng, the genius behind Google’s brain initiative, noted, “Each wave of [technological] disruption has created a lot of new jobs. I am worried about the mismatch. I think we need new ways to educate people for these new jobs that are being created…we’ll need a new [system] that is better structured to help people engage in lifelong learning … so that people feel refreshed for the constantly changing jobs that the economy creates and that we actually need people to do.”
Einstein said, “The value of education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.” How do we go about implementing experiential and entrepreneurial learning in a Common Core test based environment?
Howard: I’m not optimistic about how to improve this. As long as we are lazy and use the wrong tools to measure the easy but useless numbers that standardized tests employ, we aren’t going to be able to use new approaches which focus on curiosity, problem-solving, and exploration. You only learn ultimately by doing - by applying the knowledge in practical circumstances and use cases. That awareness and expertise can’t be measured by simple multiple choice tests.
Tawfik: When I worked at Wrigley, we volunteered with Chicago Inventors Organization, started by Calvin Flowers, to engage students on the Southside of Chicago in science, engineering, and entrepreneurship. It was a half day program twice per year. I started off telling the kids about the competitive world through storytelling. I told them about the cheetah and the gazelle in the wild. The gazelle wakes up thinking, “I have to run faster than the cheetah to stay alive.” The gazelle also has a challenge to run faster than all other gazelles if it wants to survive for another day. The cheetah wakes up thinking, “I have to run fast in order to catch the gazelle for dinner.” It has to run faster than all other cheetahs to be the first to have dinner. From there, we gave students lab coats and goggles and taught them to make gum and candy. At the end of the visit, I return to my cheetah and gazelle story. I remind them that life is like the cheetah and gazelle, competition. Both the gazelles and the cheetahs face very tough competition from peers and enemies alike. We all compete for good jobs. Even gum and candy making require science and math. To have a chance working in good companies, they need to be on top of their game. You need to apply science and math every day. Learn as much as you can. Get your education to compete. After the program, a teacher said that the students who typically don’t want to be considered a nerd or geek, were so proud to go back in the neighborhood with their lab coats and goggles showing off the gum and candy they made. It does not take a lot to make a difference – half a day to change a child’s outlook and perspective. What does it take for all corporations to offer a half a day once a year to teach kids in their communities about real life jobs?
Unfortunately, schools have no emphasis on experiential education. These days so much of college education is online. Face to face interaction is limited. Experiential learning comes from face to face dialogue, not one way. Dialogue is missing from education. No one is asking the why. Why did you come up with that answer or what led you to that conclusion? Simple answers to questions do not help inform a person of intelligence.
Silicon Valley executives are sending their children to school where technology is not allowed. These schools promote experiential learning. At Ageless Innovators, Tawfik noted that being an innovator is a “life long journey and mindset.” He lamented this generation’s tendency toward “group think, filtered information, conformity versus original thinking, and the [lack of differentiation between] fake versus real.”
How do we implement critical thinking and analytical reasoning so that students have the tools to differentiate between real versus fake?
Howard: ThinkCerca, an 1871 alum company, has an entire critical thinking system and set of educational programs for kids even younger than high school to learn evidence based reasoning and analysis. They become debaters and develop skills to [build] arguments and counter-arguments, gather evidence in support of their positions, [and] present their arguments. This is exactly the kind of education and approach that helps people of all ages be successful at separating fact and fiction. But it takes more work by the teachers than telling students to memorize useless facts and truisms. There needs to be work done to re-train the teachers as well.
Tawfik: This goes back to Howard’s point that people just click and share, not read. It is important to understand the how and why so we can continue to move forward. Instead of simply teaching math, combine it with a practical spending component. Schools need to focus on analytical thinking. Ask the right questions. Schools teach tools, but not how to utilize them. Tools are useless if you don’t know how to use them.
Recently, my daughter and I experimented with smart toys like Alexa that talk back to kids. My children and I made up questions to ask. The smart toy consistently responded, “I don’t understand.” The problem is that it can only answer questions with programmed data by the designer. It forces children to ask pre-programmed questions instead being creative and using their imagination and make believe to create play scenarios. The over-use of technology sometimes works against the development of the human mind. I was listening to podcasts by Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates on the danger of artificial intelligence creating a de-evolution of man. Even with higher education, the government is cutting funding of research and development at public universities. You can’t innovate without research and development. Our country’s superiority is the outcome of spending on research.
There is a feeling that the American Dream is no longer attainable. How do we instill hope through entrepreneurship?
Howard: Entrepreneurs are plentiful today. Every city has success stories at every level which need to be better shared and celebrated, especially in the Hispanic community. We can all do a better job of making a broader span of career alternatives and opportunities known to that particular population. We are doing this at 1871 with our IHCC incubator [and Bunker Labs for military veterans]. You don’t inject or instill hope like a drug. You create a supportive context and provide the tools where people willing to make the effort can see a path forward and toward their own success if they are willing to work for it. There are five Ps to success: passion, perspective, preparation, principle, and perseverance. The road to success is a messy process and you must make room for mistakes. Pick yourself up and try again.
As the alchemist told Santiago, “There is only one way to learn. It’s through action. Everything you need to know you have learned through your journey. What went wrong when other alchemists tried to make gold and were unable...They were seeking the treasure of their Personal Legend, without wanting actually to live out the Personal Legend.” The US wants the treasure of innovators without an actual investment in an educated populous capable of developing its own moon landing moment.
If you have an idea, but do not know where to start, reach out to small business development centers. For Chicagoans, below are additional resources to make your idea a startup reality. Knowledge is power. Access is key.