Shaping a new generation of entrepreneurs: how can we make entrepreneurship more diverse?

Innovation is the muse for entrepreneurship and employment. Innovative partnerships, including between Higher-Education Institutions (HEIs) and businesses, are helping to train and shape a new generation of entrepreneurs. But too often these worthy projects fall short by missing out on a crucial element: Equity.

Young people are on a mission

Across several countries, youth entrepreneurship is on the rise. This is good news, as young adults bring enthusiasm, energy, and drive – and embracing innovation and learning. Young people are also generally knowledgeable on market trends and are digitally savvy. And they are highly conscious of their social as well as their economic role. Of young entrepreneurs (aged 18-34) in the U.S. for example, 2/3 noted an interest in environmental sustainability and nearly 60% noted blended social and business impact. Entrepreneurship programmes need to move with them and nurture this nexus – supporting students to blend economic and social value.

But at the same time, young entrepreneurs have less knowledge and experience, little or no business or employment track records, fewer networks, and more limited financial resources. They are also more racially and ethnically diverse than older entrepreneurs, and more likely to experience poverty, housing and food insecurity, or financial strains that require them to juggle full-time work with school. On top of this, many are first-generation college students, so they don’t have family connections to guide them.

In some countries, young people are outpacing older adults in early-stage entrepreneurial activity

The level of Total early-stage Entrepreneurial Activity (TEA) for adults aged 18–34 and for those aged 35–64 (% of adults in each age group). Source: GEM Adult Population Survey 2022

Source: GEM 2022/23 Global Report

A place to thrive?

Despite these challenges, and the many more experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, that event brought about an increase in early-stage entrepreneurship activities in many countries. Yet it also widened and entrenched the challenges and inequalities faced by different groups in different places. During the pandemic, I wrote an article entitled, Where You Live Dictates How You Live, examining the link between place and opportunities for upward mobility. I argued that the pandemic further exacerbated the imbalance of social infrastructure and capital which spans racial, ethnic, gender, abilities, as well as income lines.

In my story I explain how my family’s financial struggles impacted my opportunities in education. As my family started to catch the social elevator, we moved to better neighborhoods and I started to go to better schools. I was the first member of my family to graduate from college and I’m grateful for my rewarding career. This highlights the need for entrepreneurship programmes to lead with an equity lens, to unlock the talent of underserved communities and charge economic and social growth.

High quality, equitable education programs, paired with key social infrastructure supports, can be drivers to achieving economic and social mobility.

Entrepreneurship opening doors for underrepresented groups

Studies show that people of colour are significantly underrepresented in entrepreneurship worldwide. In the U.S. a recent Brooking Institution study highlights the disparity and potential in who is driving black business growth. The data from black-owned businesses illustrates how Black/African-Americans represent only 2.4% of employer-firm owners, compared to Latino or Hispanic Americans representing 6.5%. Asian Americans represent 10.6% of employer-firm owners. Despite this, minority business owners contributed significantly to the U.S. economy, substantiating that inclusion distributes prosperity throughout society.

Entrepreneurship initiatives, including HEI partnerships need to ensure all eligible young people have the potential to contribute to a thriving economy through business ownership.

A breakdown of business ownership shows Asian and Latino or Hispanic Americans leading the way
Race/Ethnicity Status% of U.S. PopulationNo. of Businesses2020 Annual Receipts
Black/African American13.6%140,918$141.1 billion
Latino or Hispanic19.1%375,256$472.3 billion
Asian6.3%612,194$841.1 billion
American Indian or Alaskan Native1.3%40,392$9.6 billion
Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander0.3%8,822$2.3 billion
Sources: PEW Research and US Census

Higher education making a difference?

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) – universities, colleges and polytechnics – need to move with the times. They need to bring together the young entrepreneurs’ economic mission with a stronger sense of social purpose.

They must also find new ways to connect with a new, more diverse cohort of entrepreneurs. They need to see role models who look like them and help in building their confidence and connections with business and industry, government, communities, policy makers, science and research experts, and others to support them to succeed and improve their communities. Society benefits when everyone does well thanks to equitable opportunities to reach their potential. Let’s ensure our HEIs pave the way.

Founder and President at Differenza | + posts

Edna Primrose is the Founder and President of Differenza. She has over 20 years of executive expertise, leading comprehensive programs in organizational management, workforce development, education, and community development in the public and private sectors. During her 10-year tenure as a Senior Executive in U.S. federal government, she served in administrator and chief operating officer positions in the Departments of Agriculture and Labor for multi-billion-dollar programs in youth education, mentorship, water infrastructure, public-private partnerships, and administrative operations. During her tenure in the Job Corps program, Ms. Primrose led pre-apprenticeship training programs, designed program performance metrics, and worked with local youth before becoming National Director. As a private sector executive in multiple industry sectors, Ms. Primrose managed complex programs, developed leadership and organizational structures for growing companies, and led major policy initiatives. She is active on multiple boards, including boards at her alma mater, Towson University, MD, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Business Administration. She is passionate about incorporating lifelong learning in her work.