Students Skip Job Search, Seek Entrepreneurship

A growing number of students are forgoing traditional careers to launch their own businesses. For many of them, social change is just as important as their bottom line. Amy Reinink recently wrote about this for The Washington Post Magazine. Host Michel Martin speaks with Reinink and James Li, an entrepreneur and Georgetown University student.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, if you think reality shows are all about showing how much drinking and shopping and bad behavior the producers can fit into an hour, think again. A new show series that premieres this weekend aims to take a look into the lives of what the producers say are typical Muslims in America. We'll meet one of the family members profiled in a few minutes.

But first, it's time to open up the pages of The Washington Post magazine, something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now. This week's issue focused on issues in education, and one writer found a growing trend among college students who have decided to forego traditional career paths to embrace entrepreneurship. And colleges are encouraging that do-it-yourself spirit among their students by setting up programs and fellowships that even allow students to start their own companies while they are still in school.

Joining us today is James Li. He is a student entrepreneur and sophomore at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He founded Reaction Strategy Group. That's a consulting firm for nonprofits. Also with us is Amy Reinink. She's a journalist and the author of this Washington Post magazine piece. Welcome to the program, both of you. Thanks for joining us.

AMY REININK: Thanks, Michel.

JAMES LI: Thank you.

MARTIN: Amy, what are some of the reasons that the students you interviewed are embracing entrepreneurship? Some of it's not the reasons you might think.

REININK: Right. One of the professors I talked to for this story put it really well in saying that, you know, in the '90s, Silicon Valley was very exciting and a lot of people saw opportunities to make a lot of money. Whereas today, it's more that students are finding this desire to seek their own path, seek their own passions, do what really inspires them. And it's not necessarily about chasing a huge paycheck or making a ton of money or franchising. A lot of students are seeing this as a way to make a difference in the world.

MARTIN: That's interesting. James, was that part of your motivation?

LI: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think there's a lot of traditional career paths out there for us to choose from, especially as a business student. And one of the things that I discovered was, in high school, I especially liked a bunch of social colleges and I always knew I wanted to be a businessman, but I had no idea that I could find a way to combine the two.

And so, coming to Georgetown University and seeing that social entrepreneurship was a potential career path for me, it just clicked as a way to combine the two and actually be able to do good while making money.

MARTIN: Wait, what does that mean, social entrepreneurship? Can you define that for me?

LI: Social entrepreneurship is basically a combination of the dot-org and the dot-com, and it's basically your way of being able to have a double bottom line - to be able to make money, but also make a social difference at the same time.

MARTIN: Tell me what your company does.

LI: Our company is called Reaction Strategy Group and it's basically a consulting company that helps nonprofits create better relationships with their donors. And so, our philosophy is very simple. When a nonprofit tells and shares with donors what their money is being used for and shows them their impacts, then the donors will trust the organization a little bit more and give more money and be more excited about the cause.

MARTIN: Amy, is part of it the economy, though? The kids realize that the job prospects might not be that great and that they might be actually better off doing their own thing?

REININK: Absolutely. Most of the students and experts I spoke to really identified this as a major trend and said, you know, students are seeing the writing on the wall and realizing that there might not be this solid career path. And, certainly, I don't think anyone in school right now as an undergrad sees the opportunity to work for the same company for 40 years. And they see it as much more realistic to sort of carve their own paths and make their own career paths, whether that's traditional or not.

MARTIN: James, what about that? Is that part true for you, too, that you just thought, logically, you're not going to have one employer, so you might as well get out and do your own thing now, be your own boss?

LI: I think it varies...

MARTIN: You could never fire yourself.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LI: Well, hopefully not. I think it varies from student to student. I think, for me, definitely is seeing sort of the landscape out there for the workplace and the competitiveness of, you know, of having to go and find an internship and then go on and move on to find a job when you graduate.

Being able to carve my own path and being able to do something that I really love and being able to do it well, even if I want to go to another career afterwards, I feel like this is another stepping stone there. But even if I decide to move on to another company, a lot of companies are looking for entrepreneurship on the resumes.

MARTIN: Amy, one other interesting point that I learned from your piece is that a lot of the businesses that students start as businesses - that's not their final destination. I think a role model for - maybe for you as well - is Kevin Plank, the undergraduate University of Maryland who, of course, is the genius behind Under Armour, the ubiquitous sportswear, you know, apparel maker. And he had a flower delivery business, apparently, in college.

REININK: Yeah. It was a flower delivery business and he's sort of a local legend at Maryland, of course, for doing this and it wasn't this, you know, terribly inventive idea, but it made him enough money that he could start Under Armour. So, even though this wasn't the business - this wasn't his Google or his Under Armour, it did give him that entrepreneurial foundation to go on to bigger and better things.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking about this week's Washington Post magazine piece. We're talking about student entrepreneurs. Joining us are journalist Amy Reinink, who wrote the piece, and student entrepreneur, James Li.

What are some of the classes or some of the instructional experiences that students have? One of the things you talked about was these one minute pitch meetings where you actually got to pitch your idea to...

REININK: It's an entrepreneurian(ph) residence, which is basically just an instructor who has a ton of entrepreneurial experience. And the pitch sessions were fascinating to watch because students come in at various levels of, you know, completion with their business plan. Sometimes, they would just say, I have an idea.

MARTIN: Did you do that? Did you do one of those pitch sessions?

LI: Yeah. We started out, actually, at one of the pitch sessions called Startup Scramble here in D.C. and, basically, it was a little bit more extended. We were given an entire weekend, but we were expected at the beginning of the weekend to have this idea and form a team. And by the end of the weekend, to pitch in front of judges and get a lot of great feedback and harsh feedback, too, that was really helpful.

MARTIN: Is there a way in which your being a student entrepreneur has enhanced the student experience?

LI: Yeah. I think - I mean, on one hand, I don't really have a social life anymore, but there's always trade-offs. And I think, you know, just along with the risks of being an entrepreneur, there's always the risk of - I'm actually missing class for this interview right now, so this is a good example of sort of the trade-offs in that kind of...

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, is it a tough thing to tell a client, well, actually, I need to push the deadline back because I have a paper due? Or do you just try to avoid that conversation?

LI: Well, usually, if it gets to that point, that's usually our fault.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LI: But on the other hand, because of Reaction and because of our work, we've been able to meet amazing entrepreneurs in the D.C. area. You know, instead of having to go out on a Friday night, maybe on Friday night, I'm meeting up with one of our advisors to go over business strategy, to talk about what's going on.

MARTIN: So you save money on keggers, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So just a final - James, before we let you go, it's been really fun talking to you. And, as I say, when you become, you know, Kevin Plank huge, we expect you to come back and see us and don't forget to become an NPR member. Do you have any advice for other students who might want to follow what you're doing?

LI: Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of people are hesitant to take this path because they think it's a big risk, especially with student loans and everything. And I think the number one advice that I would give would be, if you have something that you really like and you have a passion that you want to follow, definitely follow it. Because if you can do something like that really, really well, that's better than going out and finding an internship or just going to a traditional career path.

MARTIN: And did hanging around with all these student entrepreneurs kind of give you the bug? Did you have kind of an idea for flower arranging business or something you had in the back of your head?

REININK: Oh, my goodness.

MARTIN: Fashion styling, something?

REININK: They made me feel pretty lazy, actually. I was thinking, oh, my goodness. These students have done so much and they're 19. But it really was neat and inspiring being around them.

MARTIN: Amy Reinink is the author of this recent Washington Post magazine piece on students and social entrepreneurship. It's called "The Boss in the Mirror." James Li is one of the students profiled in the piece. He's the founder of the consulting company Reaction Strategy Group. He's also a sophomore at Georgetown University and is sadly missing class to be here, although we're grateful.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And they both joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

LI: Thank you.

REININK: Thanks, Michel.

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