Even though Scott Gerber is wildly successful multiple times over now, his first startup failed miserably. It failed as in total meltdown, but instead of letting it get him down, he did what any good entrepreneur does and turned his experience into something awesome: the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC). The YEC focuses on building a community of young, successful entrepreneurs who are creating a better environment for entrepreneurship in general and for other young entrepreneurs in particular.
Considering the state the world and US economies are in and considering the fact that none of our political leaders (you know, the guys we hired to help us out of this mess…) are stepping forward with solutions, what the YEC is doing is a potentially disruptive force for more than just those of us in the startup world. If they can truly create a more hospitable environment for startup companies through their work with state and national governments while simultaneously providing a solid, inspiring group of mentors for young entrepreneurs, I really think that they have the potential to change the world.
Scott did me the honor of taking some time to talk about the origins of the YEC, what they’ve been up to lately, and their new project #StartupLab.
What did you do before starting the YEC?
I started a number of different businesses ranging from yearbook companies to video production companies to restaurants and nightlife. It really was across the board. All different kinds of things. About three years ago I decided that it was time to realize this vision I’d had for the last decade of putting a group of people together who can both do well and do good at the same time and today we have the YEC.
The goal of the YEC is to fight unemployment and promote entrepreneurship in young people in the US, right?
Yes, exactly. It’s meant to show entrepreneurship as a viable career path and offer young entrepreneurs the tools and resources and mentorship that they need to become more entrepreneurial.
Was that your goal from the get-go?
It was sort of twofold goal. Goal number one was certainly social impact in the field of entrepreneurship and the second goal was really to put together the most elite organization of highly-vetted, high-quality entrepreneurs that want to help each other become even more successful.
Thus, “Do well and do good” because in “Do well” we literally bring together, in an invite-only fashion, the most elite entrepreneurs—right now mainly in the US and in some countries around the world—under the age of 40 and as part of their membership we ask that they give back to the ecosystem as a whole through the programs that we help start.
What qualifies people to be asked to join the YEC?
They have to be referred by an existing member. There is a voting process through which current members vote in new members to maintain a system both democratized and vetted. There is no one metric; we take the entire thing into consideration. It’s sort of a proprietary series of information because what we’ve found is that there’s no one metric that can define the Gen Y entrepreneur. We don’t believe it can just be revenue, just be VC capital or just be an exit. There needs to be a look at the entire spectrum to really get a good sense of the person.
What results have you seen so far through your work with YEC? Any concrete results you can point to?
Absolutely. A number of different things. We had a program called #FixYoungAmerica that came out this past spring; about 30 ideas that were working and were concrete and could help to build a more entrepreneurial America from the ground up. So far several of the policies have become law.
Several of the programs have begun their expansion and this is our first effort to begin expanding on our efforts to do more mentorship as part of our findings as well. This is really a continuation of our efforts to find the best solutions out there to help rebuild the American workforce and eventually global and international workforces to make the world more entrepreneurial and more ready for the realities of a new economy.
So you’ve done work directly with the US government?
We’ve worked personally with the White House, both houses of Congress, we’ve testified in front of Congress numerous times, we work with state governments as well. We have a very close relationship with various political individuals and government agencies.
And your reception has been good there?
Yes. I think that everybody that we’ve worked with, at least, thinks there’s definitely a place for embracing and expanding upon entrepreneurship and access to entrepreneurial activities and resources, especially in our younger generation which has such high unemployment and no foreseeable change in the economy.
It’s very American, isn’t it, your idea?
Well, I think that, from my international travels, America still seems to be, in many regards, the entrepreneurial center of the world. Not because necessarily there aren’t other amazing innovations but because we are built on a society where failure is accepted. I’ve travelled the world in places like Egypt and Tunisia where you are just beginning to see the start of entrepreneurial ecosystems but they don’t yet, from a cultural perspective, adhere to certain entrepreneurial norms and needs.
I think that in more developed nations around the world we are starting to see ecosystems that are very strong in nature. We obviously have strong groups in places like London and other major meccas around the world but I think as a whole the world needs to become more entrepreneurial and hopefully through our efforts in America these efforts can show that we can really take the lead and expand those ideas.
That’s really interesting. You’re basically looking to take over the world, huh?
(Laughs) I don’t know about “take over” but I certainly think retool and retrain.
So you’d say that’s your long term goal for the YEC?
Well, it’s kind of multifold. I think our goal from a philanthropic standpoint is to offer something that is a free resource, that is accessible to anybody who wants it, anybody who wants to receive mentorship from some of the top leaders in the entrepreneurial world, we want to make sure they have access to what we provide and what we can offer.
From a membership perspective and more from a growth perspective, we certainly want to continue to move the YEC’s overall membership into various countries around the world. We certainly think there’s a need to build stronger ecosystems and, like I said, do well and do good in every place we expand to.
And what about the early days of getting the YEC started? What did that look like?
It sounds funny but the concept for the YEC was a very simple one. A little over a decade ago, I was starting my business and it failed miserably. Basically I said, imagine if I had a group of people that I understood that were my age, that were going through the same stuff that I was going through that I could have relied on and asked questions of. Would I have been successful?
What I saw when everything crashed—around young people especially but the global economy in general—was a rehashing of that exact same situation. So I sort of took it upon myself to say, okay, it’s time to make this vision a reality.
Because I’d been working with a lot of different organizations as a columnist writing about entrepreneurship for several years, I had met so many different entrepreneurs who were my peers. I then reached out to them and said, would you be interested in this sort of organization?
What started as a really informal gathering of wanting to give back has become, arguably, and this is the press quoting, this not me, the most elite organization of its kind… Now our goal is to work with every organization and every individual to continue to push these various philanthropic and mentorship goals and expand.
Let’s talk a little bit about #StartupLab. What’s the story behind that?
Like I said, our big goal was “Let’s identify the problems.”
Let me back up. When we started, we did things likes various events and we would do live chats with members. We did all of these different things to help the entrepreneurial community out. We created content, we did all this stuff, and then we started working with other organizations. We saw what they needed, what their members needed, and how best to help them. What basically ended up happening was that we would create many different programs, some worked, some didn’t—and we would have metrics and we were finally able to see what worked and what didn’t. That was when we took a step back.
#FixYoungAmerica was really about us identifying the agenda. It was about us saying, the organizations and the people that are in the entrepreneurship movements are seeing firsthand what works and what doesn’t. So let’s go out the community as a whole and see where the areas of need are and then act on those individual needs. There were some policy ideas, there were educational ideas, there were mentorship ideas and there were technology ideas, all with the goal of helping to improve the overall viability of entrepreneurship amongst young people.
What #StartupLab is, is a realization of one of those points that came up from #FixYoungAmerica, which is to expand access to quality mentorship and resources while bringing a single resource that any organization or individual can use at the click of a button while having access to the brain trust that we have as part of the YEC membership.
Thankfully, we were fortunate in speaking with Citi[Bank]. I just want to make it really clear: Citi is a huge part of this, so I do want to give them their due here. They saw the vision of what this could be, both as a starting point and longer term, and jumped on right away. We basically, together, have come up with this mentorship initiative where [people have access to resources], through various opportunities, like live access to our members, direct access to our members through events around the world. Content, ebooks, all kinds of different things.
One simple platform; anybody can install this or access this through our Facebook page and we’ll basically be offering any of these things for free.
For everyone, not just for members?
That is correct. The only YEC members are the most elite and successful entrepreneurs that have been invited but everyone else… We are using the people in our network to mentor the masses.
Over time there will be a number of different things that we do. This is obviously the beta, it’s a starting point. It’s our goal to utilize social media and, by creating content, to help strengthen the ecosystem as a whole by working with as many organizations big or small as we can, in every single industry and sector from education to government to the private sector, and offering them a solution that they can easily build more community around their existing hubs while basically accessing high quality content.
Longer term we’ll add more and more things like mentorship matching programs, a comprehensive startup wiki, and other tools that these organizations can utilize. The goal is not just to be another silo and not to just be another hub. Our goal, instead, is to provide a resource that everyone can use, rather than trying to be the only stand alone one there.
There are already amazing groups. You have things like Junior Achievement, Babson, Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship and dozens more who are already out there right now inspiring incredible amounts of young people who are highly activated in entrepreneurship. We’re just adding another level to their education and adding another way of getting awareness to that community.
Excellent. Where did you come up with the name? Why’d you choose #StartupLab?
To be very honest we just went through a bunch of different names and that was the one that stuck out. We believe that everything we do needs to be social because we believe that entrepreneurship is meant to be shared. That’s why with every initiative we do we utilize the hashtag as the actual name because we believe that the name should be shared, the message should be shared, and the content should be shared so we do what we can to enable that.