5 Minutes With. . .Scott Gerber

Serial entrepreneur, author, public speaker, and business expert Scott Gerber is on a mission to change the face of entrepreneurship. His Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invitation-only organization that connects successful entrepreneurs—from technology, retail, and service businesses—to each other. YEC also connects its successful members with aspirational business owners through #StartupLab, a free mentorship program sponsored by Citibank that offers events, video chats, email lessons, and more. All these accomplishments, and he’s not even 30. Here Gerber talks to our Michelle Court about why young entrepreneurs matter now more than ever.

Michelle Court: How did you decide to start the YEC?

Scott Gerber: Almost a decade ago, when I was still a student, I started a video production business that made, at that time, a good amount of money for a junior in college. But as a college senior, I learned the hard way that I had no idea what I was doing. It went from earning lots of money to bankruptcy. And I always said, well, if I just had a mentor, or if I just had someone around me that could have helped guide my career in a stronger way, maybe I wouldn’t have made all those mistakes. I swore to myself at that time, that if I ever was successful as an entrepreneur, I’d give back so no young person was in that same exact position: needing answers, needing a support network, and having neither.

I was fortunate to start several other businesses in the following years. Then the recession happened, and I saw that young people were in the same position as I was when I was in school. Having very minimal job prospects in a very bleak economy and having no direction. And so I said, wouldn’t it be great if we could bring together people that have been through this process of building a business when they’re young, and being very successful at it? If we could talk to our own peers about our experiences, wouldn’t that be powerful? And that became the basis for the YEC.

MC: Why do you think that encouraging and supporting young entrepreneurs is more important now than ever?

SG: The work landscape, the traditional job landscape, has fundamentally changed. We are quickly becoming a free agent nation, one where freelance will become more common. Small business now has become, for some folks, a reality to earn a living. And frankly, we’re just becoming more self-sufficient by the nature of globalization, automation, and recession.

I think that putting real skills in the hands of people who need them the most—young people; the smartest, the most technologically savvy generation in history—can be powerful. And I think that because YEC provides a peer-to-peer level of mentorship, we speak their language. We understand them. We are them.

MC: Do you think that successful entrepreneurship is best learned through education, through experience, or a combination of both?

SG: Experience is the key. Failing, getting up again, and doing it all over the right way. Those key elements are vital. That being said, education and networking on the collegiate level can be vital and incredibly important to one’s growth as an entrepreneur.

I believe that many of America’s colleges today are failing our young people by providing an antiquated education that gives them absolutely no tangible value of the new economy and the construct of how traditional work will happen from this point forward. So, I think that entrepreneurship education cannot necessarily be taught, but be engrained. The thought process, the way in which you should move into the world, into that space, can all be thought through and taught by business owners and entrepreneurs and collegiate professors in some ways. But it’s just not happening en masse.

MC: Do you think everyone can be an entrepreneur?

SG: I do, and I think it’s going to become more common. I think the term entrepreneur has become scary because of the Zuckerberg effect in many ways, where people associate entrepreneurship with a billion dollar exit now because of the media glorification of it. I look at it as self-sufficiency. Can people be self-sufficient, whether they choose to be freelancers, small business owners, or entrepreneurs? The answer is, if they don’t feel they can, then they’re going to get a rude awakening with the realities of the new economy.

The traditional corporate ladder is breaking all over the world. We’re now not even working in offices anymore. We’re mobile. We’re co-working. So I think people need to realize that this pedestal that the traditional job has been on for a very, very, long time is going to come crashing down. And if you don’t keep up with what it’s going to take to be successful, to have the edge, and frankly to earn a living, I think you’re doing yourself an incredible disservice.

MC: What’s the most important thing an established business owner can do to encourage the next generation?

SG: I think giving back is just so vitally important. People always say to me, oh, but my business is so boring. What can I offer? And then I say, how many years have you been in business? They’ll say 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. And I say, boom, that’s what you can offer. The perception is that we, as a younger generation, focus on the “exit,” the sexy businesses, and the tech businesses that don’t need a revenue model because “we’ll figure it out later.”

The reality is that the older generations of established businesses have incredible power to give back by showing people what it takes to really build a cash flow–based business, strong revenues, strong consumer loyalty, and most importantly, longevity. Those fairly traditional values that make businesses successful regardless of time, place, or industry are huge advantages to this next generation.