Hey, kid, I hear you want to be an entrepreneur

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By Leo Valiquette

“This is the most manic depressive way you could possibly live life. You’re never having a good day. You’re either having the best day ever, or you are thinking you are about to die.”

So begins the trailer for The Startup Kids, a documentary about young web entrepreneurs in the U.S. and Europe. At a time when “anybody now with a laptop and a wi-fi connection can build anything,” the possibilities are near endless. Nonetheless, entrepreneurship is, as it has always been, a risky leap of faith coupled with levels of commitment and persistence that border on the obsessive.

The documentary will air in Ottawa this coming Sunday evening with a private screening at Shopify, to cap off a week of local activities in celebration of Global Entrepreneurship Week.

In last week’s post, I talked about how proven entrepreneurs must be passed the ball to execute on the economic development initiatives being developed by Invest Ottawa and city hall. But there is a more elemental step that must also be taken in support of any broad effort to drive economic activity and job creation – promoting entrepreneurship as a viable career option to youth.

Last week’s post was a followup to the Forecasting Ottawa’s Economic Future event, held Oct. 31 at the Chateau Laurier. During the panel discussion that concluded the event, Invest Ottawa co-chair Jeff Westeinde, the Westeindes being a family of entrepreneurs, shared the story of the young family member who told his high school guidance counsellor he wanted to be an entrepreneur. The counsellor immediately tried to dissuade him from such a reckless course.

Entrepreneurship is certainly not for everyone, but no career path is. I can only wonder if that guidance counsellor would have been as hasty to speak against serving with the military, the fire department or the police force, where there are very real threats to life and limb.

A decade ago, in those dark days when telecom jobs were being cut by the thousands and seldom a week went by without another photonics startup biting the dust, Ottawa was overrun by disenfranchised tech workers supporting their families with severance packages. The Ottawa Talent Initiative, a non-profit organization supported by public tax dollars, worked to retrain and redeploy this talent pool. As a business journalist, I followed this story over a number of years and chronicled the challenges of too few jobs to go around and the difficulties many people faced to acquire the technical skills that were now in demand.

It was not surprising that during this time, many tech workers at the ends of their wits and their bank accounts turned to entrepreneurship in desperation. But there is a profound difference between the psyche of someone who is content to be an employee in a large organization and someone who has the spirit of an entrepreneur. I heard anecdotes from many sources about laid-off tech workers who launched ill-fated startups.

At the same time, the region’s post-secondary institutions noted a marked decline in enrollment in IT-related programs, such as engineering and computer science. The word from the street here was that burned tech workers were actively dissuading their children from taking similar career paths.

To me, these trends illustrated the wholesale lack of an entrepreneurial culture in the National Capital Region outside of a small and select group of people in the orbit, at that time, of March Road in Kanata. Entrepreneurship was generally regarded as an option of last resort, tech was dead and any sane person was well-advised to stay away from anything that carried risk.

The fact that Ottawa today does have an active startup community is a testament to two things: First, that true entrepreneurs will forge ahead regardless of the obstacles. Second, the skilled immigrants who continue to flock to Ottawa, are, by virtue of the fact that they have uprooted themselves and relocated to a foreign land, entrepreneurs at heart.

Still, Ottawa remains burdened by its status as a government town. And by that, I mean the mindset that invariably takes hold of anyone who is in a relatively stable job that is defined by collective bargaining and padded with a rich pension and benefits package. For many years, Nortel’s culture and environment fit this description near as well as any government department and left its imprint on those who worked there.

And before this post provokes a furious outcry from Nortel alumni and public servants everywhere, allow me to emphasize that this is not, in any way, meant as a criticism of anyone working in government or in a large corporate environment. But the simple fact is anyone who is accustomed to, and comfortable in, such a workplace is not likely to be a red-blooded entrepreneur, nor will they have the point of reference to empathize with someone who is.

Young people who have the qualities that make a successful entrepreneur need role models and mentors. They need the insight that will help them understand their own potential, what it means to be an entrepreneur and the struggles and sacrifice required to succeed. The only individuals who can provide this are proven entrepreneurs. Maybe that kid who says he wants to be an entrepreneur should be advised to consider a different path, but that decision should be based on an awareness of all the considerations, not on a bias rooted in ignorance.

So while the local business community celebrates this week, let’s consider how we could each do a better job of reaching dinner tables, classrooms and guidance counsellors’ offices everywhere to wash away that sour taste too many people associate with the word “entrepreneurship.”

Image: Invest Ottawa

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