Like many millennials, Candace Mitchell, now 29, graduated from Georgia Tech in 2011 with student debt. But Mitchell stands out from others her age because her debts didn’t discourage her from launching a successful start-up; instead, they motivated her.
“When I started my company I was year out of college, so one of the top things on my mind was student loan debt,” she says. “I decided I wasn’t going to allow it to hold me back. Even with a little debt, I knew that I would have an opportunity to really pay it back in full through the success of this venture.
“Rather than seeing it as a weakness, I saw it as an opportunity.”
Mitchell was inspired by her own struggle with brittle hair and the inability to find the right products to help. She co-founded the company Techturized, Inc., in 2012, and launched the consumer brand Myavana two years later. Myavana, which recommends products for its customers via hair analysis, has a storefront in Atlanta and and nearly 2,000 customers around the country.
“Student loan debt is an epidemic that is troubling for many millennials financially. We are always pressed to get a greater education. But what happens is, when you graduate and go into the job market, you have these astronomical payments. You can’t really invest in the things you really want to — things you are talented at and passionate about,” she says.
“I think it holds a lot of people back.”
A 2016 report from the Small Business Administration found millennials are on track to become the least entrepreneurial generation in recent history. In 2014, less than two percent of millennials reported self-employment, compared with 7.6 percent of Generation X and 8.3 percent for baby boomers. That’s attributable in part to their youth. But the growth trend in the same report showed that, even at age 30, less than four percent of millennials reported self-employment in their primary job in the previous year, compared with 5.4 percent for Generation X and 6.7 percent for boomers.
“STUDENT LOAN DEBT IS AN EPIDEMIC. … I THINK IT HOLDS A LOT OF PEOPLE BACK.”
“Trends among the age groups millennials will join in future years suggest that entrepreneurship among millennials will remain relatively low for decades,” the report states.
With college far more expensive, and more necessary, than it used to be, and student loan debt topping $1.3 trillion, research institutions like the Kauffman Foundation are in the beginning stages of studying the impact of this burden on entrepreneurship among millennials. Early results are not encouraging. Loans affect millennials’ ability to build credit, manage equity and find cash flow to launch new ventures.
A separate 2016 report from EY and the Economic Innovation Group found that while 62 percent of millennials have considered starting their own business, 42 percent say they don’t have the financial resources to do so.
At least not until they finally finish off paying off those loans.
Finding new talent and inspiring the next generation
To help attract and retain millennial talent like Mitchell to live, work and hopefully launch new ventures in Atlanta, the city’s Chamber of Commerce launched a campaign called ChooseATL in 2015.
“We have an intention and a strategy around recruiting the talent needed to support business growth,” said Kate Atwood, ChooseATL’s executive director. “It’s important to create an environment and community that invites, encourages and really provides resources so that any young person that wants to start a business knows Atlanta is the place to do it.”
Atwood cites small business and angel investment tax credits, as well as the city’s low cost of living, as incentives for new talent to move in and thrive in the area.
The city is also home to a chapter of Youth Entrepreneurs, a nationwide, year-long accredited program for high-school students in under-served areas that means to teach young people the skills needed to launch their own business. Since 2006, 2,600 local students have participated, and 99 percent go on to graduate high school, according to Scott Brown, Youth EntrepreneursEast’s executive director.
“Not all kids who take our class become entrepreneurs, but what we try to instill in them are the values and mindsets of entrepreneurs — it’s just as important to learn the concepts of how to launch a business, but also how to launch a life,” says Brown. “To look at entrepreneurship as a viable option to not only improve their lives, but the lives of others in their communities.
Sixteen-year-old Justice Steers says he’s already caught the entrepreneurial bug after taking the course this year. The sophomore at South Gwinnett High School in Snellville, Georgia, outside of Atlanta, says he hopes to one day run an app empire and study computer science at Kennesaw State University.
“The best thing about being my own boss is not having someone tell me what I can and can’t do — I want to be able to make my own rules,” Steers says.