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January 27 2014

The State of Our Union: When Young People Saved America – an Inspiring 5% at a Time

On Tuesday, January 28th, 2014, President Barack Obama will outline his vision for the nation, and indications are he will focus more on “Ladders of Opportunity” than “income inequality.” That’s smart for the President, and good news for all of us. Because the only way we are going to change income inequality, in a vibrant democracy rooted in free enterprise and capitalism, is by expanding the bowl that opportunity gets served in.

Let me be clear, income and wealth inequality is an enormous problem – maybe the problem of this generation. When the world’s wealthiest 85 people own more than 3.5 billion people on the planet, something is certainly wrong in the world. The problem is not so much ‘the problem,' per se, but what we collectively choose to do about it. Looks like the President is focused on doing his part. And now, we must all do ours.

The good news is, this problem is not as hard or overwhelming as it sounds. Let’s start with our kids.

There are 100,000 public school houses in America, and Jim Clifton (chairman and CEO of Gallup) and I believe that the 30 million young people in grades 5-12 in our public schools represent “the bench strength for the playoff games of the rest of our lives.” They literally are our future (employees, customers, consumers, owners, entrepreneurs — leaders). Literally.

If we don’t solve this crisis, with our youth, then in 10 years' time we will be the nation that used to run the world. Let me give you some of the numbers.

30% of all kids in the U.S. are dropping out of high school. Not black kids, or Latino kids, or Asian kids, or poor kids. I am talking about our kids. 30% of all kids, including solid middle and upper class kids, are dropping out of high school in the richest country in the world. What the…

An estimated 30-40% of all kids are dropping out of high school in urban communities across America.

An estimated 70% — yes, 70% — of Black young men are dropping out of high schoolin America. This number is a death sentence for Black families if we don’t arrest it, and quick.

Note to Black parents: who precisely is going to marry your daughter? No job, no high-school diploma, no ownership, no voting (you tend to not bother voting, when you don’t have a stake in the thing you are voting about), and little to no hope. Nope — not marrying my daughter, is my response. What about you? This is a genuine cultural crisis for Black America, but these overall numbers are a problem for the nation, not a race.

An estimated 70% of the prison population doesn’t have a high school diploma, and a troubling number of young people with a parent in prison, end up in prison. And then you have public policy. An alarming number of U.S. governors have reported that they can tell you by 3rd grade reading and math scores, how many prisons to build. Sound like a problem to you? It’s not — it’s a full blown crisis.

Kids in low-wealth neighborhoods with crappy role models, and even less opportunity are not only dropping out of school, they all too often default to a sad set of ‘career choices'. They all too often want to be rap stars, athletes or drug dealers. And here is my summary observation: these kids are not dumb and they are not stupid. They are brilliant. They are simply modeling what they see. And we must now give them something different to see!

Kids don’t want to go to school and ‘get an education,’ no different than you don’t want a mortgage (you want to be a homeowner), and I don’t want a car loan (I want a cool car). These kids want to be successful and gainfully employed. They want a shot at a good job, or economic opportunity. In other words, they want the same thing we want — aspirational opportunity.

And now for the good news. According to Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point (University of Illinois study), 5% of role models will stabilize any community. Stop right there. Not 80% role models, nor 50% role models, nor 25% or even 10% of role models. Simply 5%. That percentage is absolutely doable.

Why am I a small business owner and entrepreneur? Because my father was. 

Why do I love myself today? Because I grew up with a mother who told me that she loved me, and that I should love myself.

It’s not rocket science, it's role modeling.

But there is another 5% number that actually bothers me. The 2012 Gallup-HOPE Index showed that while 77% of all kids wanted to be their own boss, only 5% have a business internship. That means that while 77% of our youth want to be their own boss, only 5% will get any direct experience (and connected opportunity), around what any of that actually means.

And so, if it takes 5% of role models to stabilize communities, and at present only 5% of America’s youth are experiencing any sort of business internship or business role modeling, this tells me that we are both at a tipping point, and a reflection point. If we move backwards, the momentum stops, the dream ends, and future income and wealth inequality will widen — guaranteed. 

But if we arrest this slide, double down, roll up our sleeves, and supercharge our youth’s economic energy experience, in every public school across America, once again connecting American education with American aspiration — then like plugging a socket in the wall, the American Dream is back in business again. It’s just that simple.

Amazingly, our youth are actually doing their part, by telling us their ‘intent’. According to the Gallup-HOPE Index, 85% of youth reported that they never give up, 58% reported that they will create something that changes the world, and 55% reported that they planned to start their own business.

Even more inspiring, the 2013 Gallup-HOPE Index reports that minority, young students are more entrepreneurially inclined than their mainstream counterparts. About half of all racial and ethnic minority students (50%) say that they plan to start their own business, compared with 37% of white students, according to recent findings from the Gallup-HOPE Index.

Jim Clifton often says that some of our nation’s most important leaders are digging in the wrong hole. We focus on innovation, without realizing that innovation without a customer standing next to it, is not a business.

Or we focus on big-business, mature industry-oriented job creation, without understanding that half of all jobs (50%) in America come from small businesses with 100 employees or less. 70% of all jobs come from small businesses with 500 employees or less. It’s like we are looking for love in all the wrong places. 

But what if we dedicated ourselves to revitalizing America. What if we dedicated ourselves to creating the one million start-ups we need annually to drive supreme economic growth, rather than the 400,000 or so start-ups we have had for almost a decade now? What if we joined our President in talking more about Ladders of Opportunity, than the fears that fan the flames of income or wealth re-distribution? Other than harmonizing tax policy, re-distribution is just not going to happen in America. 

Here’s my part: 

My mission is simple — quadruple the level of business role models from 5% to 20% by year 2020, and you change everything. Because all a kid wants is either a good job, or a shot at economic opportunity.

And if through intervention strategies like our HOPE Business In A Box Academies, powered and measured by the Gallup-HOPE Index, we can spur a generation of entrepreneurs, small business owners and ‘self-employment projects', school-by-school across America, we will do more than lesson income inequality, we will spur and grow very real new wealth creation, new ownership, and a new era of jobs for all. Sustainable, because they were created by us.

On January 28th, the President will outline his plan to lead. 

This is my plan to help. What’s yours? 

This we can do! 

Let’s go.

John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), and is the only 2010-2012 bestselling business author in America who is also African-American. His newest book, due out May, 2014, is HOW THE POOR CAN SAVE CAPITALISM, and will be published byBerrett Koehler Publishing.

Photo: Brocreative/