Small Business & Startups

Millennials embrace entrepreneurship

Young business owners weigh in, as report shows generation’s rising ability to take the leap.

April 27, 2018
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MillenialBiz Erica Lang
Erica Lang, 27, is founder and owner of art, clothing and accessories retailer Woosah Outfitters. Courtesy Pasagraphy

Recent studies show the time to start a business is now, and one report reveals millennials are taking that to heart.

The 2018 Amway Global Entrepreneurship Report published last month surveyed nearly 49,000 men and women ages 14-99 worldwide and found 68 percent of those under 35 had a strong desire to start a business, compared to 60 percent of those 35-49 and 48 percent of those 50 and older.

Millennials also tied for the highest age-group score on the Amway Entrepreneurial Spirit Index (AESI), at 58.

Introduced in 2015, the AESI measures three dimensions that influence a person’s intention to start a business: desire, feasibility and stability against social pressure.

The average AESI score for all U.S. respondents was 54. For those 35-49, it was 58, and for those 50 and older, it was 51.

Jim Ayres — managing director of Amway North America — said 58 percent of respondents under 35 are confident starting a business is feasible for them.

That score is three points higher for millennials than when the report was last published in 2016.

“With the younger groups, they have less to lose, they are more open to the risk because they are just starting out, and they are seeing a lot of stories about people in their age group who are being successful and trying new things,” Ayres said. “I think that makes them less risk-averse.”

Locally, many millennial entrepreneurs said they chose self-employment so young that their enthusiasm outweighed the fear of risk.

Elyse Welcher, 29, is owner of Littlewings Designs and co-founder of collaborative maker space and retailer Parliament the Boutique (which soon will rebrand as Gemini Handmade), at 136 S. Division Ave. in downtown Grand Rapids.

She started Littlewings at 21 after graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design with a degree in accessory design.

“It was in the middle of a recession, and the creative industry was in a hiring freeze. Most of my fellow students were taking on two to three internships just to get by and scrambling to get entry-level jobs,” she said.

“It was like, ‘What’s the harm?’ I had professors encouraging me to be an entrepreneur instead of going to New York or L.A. to try to make it in fashion. So, I started an Etsy shop and built it up little by little.”

By 2013, she opened Parliament alongside her now-husband Jake Vroon, who was building his own brand, Harbinger Leather Design, before they met.

Despite getting their start in a recession, they were able to fund their business from savings because their education was nearly paid for by scholarships.

Erica Lang, 27, is founder and owner of art, clothing and accessories retailer Woosah Outfitters, at 738 Wealthy St. SE in Grand Rapids, which she founded in 2011 at age 20.

She said she has always had an entrepreneurial bent but didn’t go for it right away because she thought the traditional college path was expected.

After changing her major from nursing to Army ROTC, then transferring to Kendall College of Art and Design to study printmaking, Lang “gave up” her social life and poured herself into making art, figuring out how to make money on it with advice and support from an aunt who is a businesswoman and creative type.

“I never sat down and thought, ‘How could this go bad?’ I was just so eager and excited about ‘How could it go well?’” Lang said.

“Now that we’re established, risk-taking is just a part of it. It’s not that the risks get easier, it’s just that you stop letting it affect you so much.”

Lang said she has noticed other millennials struggle to find their perfect job.

“Getting a college education was super important growing up; you had to do it to get a good job. But I have brothers three years older than me who graduated, and I would watch them and their friends graduate and not get a job,” she said.

“If there’s a job out there that’s your dream job, maybe we should be the ones creating our own job. It’s easier to create your own than it is to try to search for it.”

Aleka Thrash, 34, is owner and founder of ACT PhotoMedia, a photography business based in Grand Rapids and her home city of Las Vegas. She also runs a natural hair and lifestyle blog called Naturally ACT.

She said she thinks of herself as an “intrapreneur” because she has a day job as an enrollment counselor at Cornerstone University.

Thrash started ACT PhotoMedia in 2001 when she was taking a high school photography class that required students to register a DBA.

Although she would like to go full time with her businesses someday, she said, for now, financial security is paramount.

“I am a person of structure. I like to know I will have money in the bank and travel and have the best quality of life,” she said. “I can do photography on the side and not worry about where my next meal comes from.”

The tradeoffs are that she doesn’t have a lot of free time or get much sleep.

“Yesterday, I got out of work after a 10-hour workday and was up until 3 a.m. editing photos, writing a blog post, scheduling a photo shoot and answering messages on social media,” she said.

Husband-wife entrepreneurs Ross Tanner, 27, and Bree Tanner, 24, were looking for some of that same security so they could build their way up to business ownership following graduation from Grand Valley State University in 2015.

But the two found themselves fast-tracked into entrepreneurship when Bree Tanner couldn’t find a full-time job and her freelance business blossomed, while Ross Tanner worked an in-house job.

In August 2016, they opened Studio Us, a design, photography and branding firm at 343 S. Division Ave. in Grand Rapids.

“We always knew we would eventually want to have a studio of our own but always thought that would be 10-plus years down the road after school,” Ross Tanner said. “After Bree continued to take on loads of freelance work, I would help her as much as I could during nights and weekends. We started to see a viability to making it a real business.”

The co-owners have since moved into “a beautiful studio space in Heartside,” have a client roster that includes Newell Brands, CAT Footwear, Haworth and Steelcase, and recently made their first full-time hire in addition to one other part-time employee.

They said they sought that kind of control over their lives.

“We wanted to own our own business because we wanted the ability to choose the type of work we were doing and who we were doing it for. Plus, there is something about being able to say that you built your livelihood from the ground up,” Ross Tanner said.

Amway’s Ayres, who is a baby boomer, said he has noticed a generational difference in attitudes toward work.

“My generation was about trying to make it, and then when I made it, I went to try to make a difference,” he said. “I think the millennials want to make a difference and be at companies that make a difference from the beginning. It colors the products they buy and the people and organizations they want to be associated with. There are a lot of jobs today you would get at a corporation that don’t necessarily align with those desires.”

Ayres added: “One other factor that should be mentioned is what drives millennials to think this way about their careers is they’ve seen their parents work in companies, at whatever level in corporations, and they’ve seen them lose jobs due to downsizing and technology advances — lose their jobs and not have enough money to live on comfortably in retirement.

“They see all that and say, ‘I don’t want that.’”

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