By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
The topic was supposed to be How Millennials are Sparking Change, but while the panels addressed the challenges of entrepreneurship, the dearth of STEM in the education system, the growing Hispanic population and the Austin startup culture, little was said about how millennials are sparking change until the end.
In that final panel, sponsored by National Journal and the Atlantic, Techstars managing director Jason Seats, pointed out that with the “cushy existence” of the middle class and above, millennials graduate ready to reach for the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy. “They’re looking for fulfillment right out of the gate,” which means they’re trying to do things that will be meaningful and benefit society. That’s changing the culture.”
Isaac Barchas, head of the Austin Technology Incubator said there is a higher percentage of millennials than other generation groups viewing entrepreneurship as a career path, though he said he doesn’t know what direction that entrepreneurship will take.
And Rep. Trey Martinez of San Antonio said he hoped that the entrepreneurial spirit of millennials would help reinvent government in “the confluence of the tech world meets the business world to fix the inefficiencies in government.”
Finally, Margo Dover, executive director of Skillpoint Alliance said the millennials she works with not only offer great innovation and wonderful ideas, but they level the playing field. “They don’t care about your gender, your sexual orientation or your color they want to be the best. The best leaders and the best innovators and the best business people…I am learning from them,” she said. What older people (women in particular) were taught was impolite, such as speaking out boldly and taking leadership positions, they do joyfully.
Why Millennials Are Entrepreneurs
The first panel, Millennial Entrepreneurship Panel Discussion included Bob Metcalfe, professor of Innovation and Murchison Fellow of Free Enterprise at UT, Rudy Rodriguez, managing partner of Team Venti, Grant Helmer, student and director of Longhorn Entrepreneurship Agency, Jae Kim, founder of Chi’Lantro BBQ, Ali Mavrakis, CFO of Basedrive. Ron Browstein, editorial director of Atlantic Media moderated.
Brownstein asked how the panelists had decided to take the plunge into entrepreneurship. Kim said he had always been an entrepreneur because “I was never very good at school.” He started companies when he was 21 and 25 that failed. But Chi’Lantro, he said, “seems to be doing pretty well.” Rodriguez, who grew up on South Padre Island, said his father always taught him to “swim toward opportunity.” He had taken a corporate job, he said, and was always bored and tired, and began to wonder “is this all there is?”
Metcalfe said he had “gone to school for 23 years in a row and loved it” but when he went to Silicon Valley he met Steve Jobs, David Packard, William Hewlett, and decided “If they can do it, so can I.”
Metcalfe said his biggest challenge was learning to sell.
Mavrakis said the toughest part was taking responsibility. “The buck has to stop with me. You’re going to get a lot of advice. Figure it out and do something with it.”
For Kim the most difficult part was capital. He’d maxed out his credit cards early on and the card companies were calling and asking “What’s wrong? Do you have a family emergency? Can you pay your bills?”
All the panelists agreed that if you want to start an Internet based company or a tech company it’s a lot easier and less expensive now. There’s a global audience. They also agreed with a poll Brownstein cited that said the most important factors for entrepreneurial success are persistence, people skills and knowledge of business.
“We all talk about how lucky Mark Zuckerberg was,” Metcalfe said. “When you look at what the days were like, it’s about getting through the unlucky days and exploiting the luck when it was good.”
The two pieces of advice all panelists agreed on for budding entrepreneurs are: Listen to customers, mentors, advisors and start something.
It’s About Connection
The next panel, How to Start, Sustain and Succeed as a Millennial Entrepreneur, included Seats, Barchas, Dover, Martinez and Michelle Skelding, senior vice president of global technology strategies for the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
All agreed that a big part of success in the Austin startup ecosystem is about what Barchas called “touching atoms.” It is key that the city has an ecosystem where entrepreneurs interact. For one thing, said Skelding, it creates collaboration, what Seats called “cross pollination of ideas across verticals. One of the benefits of that, he said is that institutional knowledge comes from interaction with an organization or ecosystem and providing situations where people can interact and learn from one another greatly reduces the time and cost of imparting institutional knowledge. Bringing people up to speed.
Most agreed that the present educational system marginalizes women, minorities and people in lower socioeconomic brackets, especially in the STEM fields. Dover, whose organization gives high school students an opportunity to get hands on in area companies and offer innovative solutions to the problem those companies face, said she never had a formal education. But she had a mentor by the name of George Kozmetzky, who said if she would meet him once a month for breakfast at 6 a.m., he would help her. And she did.
One audience member asked how someone would find out about the Austin ecosystem and Seats said it was a lot like navigating UT campus. “I got this complicated set of directions and got on campus and said ‘Where is the student activity center?’ When I got lost again, I asked someone else. You just start walking.”
After the panels, Brownstein said that, of Austin and Los Angeles, Austin was far more community oriented. The idea of starting a business in Austin is much more a process of joining a community than simply “doing your own thing.”