Farrah Gray got his start selling hand-painted rocks. Growing up in inner-city Chicago in the 1980s, Gray grew accustomed to days "when the only thing in our refrigerator was the light that came on when you opened the door," he writes in his book, "Reallionaire."
It was also an event worth recording when a month would pass without anyone being shot in his housing project, he writes. So he was determined from a young age to become self-sufficient. He told AOL Jobs that he credits the poverty of his childhood as the great motivating factor.
And not only did Gray become very rich, but he did so starting at a very young age. At 6 years old, he looked around his block in search of something that could be converted into a salable product, and settled on rocks.
"There's no idea dumb enough you can't get at least a billion people to buy into," he says about his first $50 profit. He began by painting and refashioning the rocks to make them into bookends and doorstops.
"It's the spirit of the Third World entrepreneur," he says. "You have to create your own job. You can't wait to rely on Exxon or Wal-Mart to hire you. And that's the spirit I try to teach to young entrepreneurs."
Following his stint as the rock-salesman, Gray moved on to homemade body lotions and eventually his bigger enterprises, which included prepaid phone cards. Along the way, he became a media figure, with his own radio show, "Youth AM/FM," on which he opined about issues related to youth entrepreneurship. He also wrote a series of books, starting with "Reallionaire," published in 2005. He also launched the Farrah Gray Foundation, which promotes youth entrepreneurship among inner-city youth.
Of course, for every Farrah Gray, there's the countless number of failed young entrepreneurs. The multimillionaire himself was forced to confront challenges beyond just getting the financing for an idea. As a black man, Gray says that he is regularly discriminated against. Just recently, when a book of his was published in Russia, his picture was taken off the cover. "I was OK with it, knowing it was a marketing decision, and that the information would still get out."
Nevertheless, Gray has become the millennial generation's poster child and a leading cheerleader for striking it on your own, at as early an age as you'd like. Among his high-profile backers is Bill Clinton. And according to research compiled by the Kauffmann Foundation, which is a partner of the Farrah Gray Foundation, Gray's story is indicative of a generational entrepreneurial drive. From 2007 to 2010, roughly 40 percent of those aged 18 to 24 have expressed a desire to start their own business, if they haven't already done so. The most recent data set for 2010 came from polling over 5,000 young adults, with help from Harris Interactive Polls.
Leading commentators on the subject view the trend as being a response to the instability caused by the recession. Carol Sanford, CEO of InterOctave, has pioneered the use of the term, "NextGenNow" leaders, in tribute to what she describes as the generation's lack of patience regarding their time to lead.
In June, Sanford wrote an article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, entitled, "Now What? Young Leaders Are Changing the World By Working for Themselves."
Among the people she profiles was Chris Guillebeau, who has imported coffee from Jamaica and opened a small publishing company in West Africa while he worked there as a medical volunteer from 2002-06.
Writing for Social Innovation, Sanford discussed a similar profile.
"NextGenNow leaders open themselves up to inventing what is needed in each new situation and as opportunities reveal themselves. They never look back to borrow from past practices or look sideways to borrow from others," she writes, having conducted hundreds of interviews and profiles of entrepreneurs in the young age bracket. "NextGenNow leaders are not social entrepreneurs because they don't start with social or environmental problems, and build businesses around them. They start with and stay with their own drive and a unique vision."
With no new American Century and a promise of endless job security on the horizon, educators across the country have begun preparing their students for a professional environment in which they'll have to rely on themselves.
Among the states looked at as having the most dynamic statewide entrepreneurial training programs are Kentucky, North Dakota and North Carolina. North Carolina's "Hop on the Bus!" program allows students to compete for the top business plan, while North Dakota's "Marketplace for Kids" provides a simulation of running a business while also providing instruction.
"These programs are growing," says Cathy Ashmore, the executive director of the Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education (CEE) "You grow up thinking how to get the job," she told AOL Jobs. "But people should think how they should make the job. And that's what's now being taught."
The CEE was formed in 1981 in response to a challenge posed by Ronald Reagan's first education secretary, Terrell Bell, to have all the nation's vocational programs include entrepreneurial training. Thirty years into its existence, the CEE is now joined by countless peer organizations promoting youth-run business, and has even extended the push into earlier stages of youth, well before the choice is made to enter vocational programs.
While every program has its own set of lists and goals for the aspiring entrepreneur, many of them echo Gray's advice:
- Focus on your area of excellence, and find something that's easy for you but harder for someone else.
- Find a niche market.
- Ask yourself if you have a passion, because it's not just about supply and demand.
In its publication, Future CEO Starts, the CEE promotes its success stories. From its most recent issue, 11-year old Hunter Romanko spoke of his business plan which won a schoolwide competition at New Jersey's Cedar Grove Middle School.
Romanko is profiled for coming up with a video game business, called A.R. Games, which offers games that he created on CDs. Romanko was able to turn a profit of nearly $104 for the 100 CDs he created, which featured games inspired by Pac-Man and Fruit Thief.
In his essay, "Gaming, It's My Business," published in Future CEO Starts, Romanko alluded to his initial struggle in coming up with a business plan worth acting upon "I couldn't seem to come up with a business that I could get really excited about," he writes.
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