N.C. colleges nurture Generation Z entrepreneurs

tstilwell@newsobserver.comFebruary 5, 2012 

A Friday night consisting of pizza and beer might not sound very exceptional in the life of the average college student. But for the residents of Duke's InCube living community, the college staples are fuel for the entrepreneurial spirit.

"It's kind of a hacker culture just because of a lot of people are doing technology startups," said Tom Schuhmann, an InCube resident and a Duke senior. The community consists of campus apartments connected by a common room and serves as an incubator for Duke's undergraduate entrepreneurs, all of whom are working on a startup or are on the hunt for their next project.

"People are up really late in the common room, ordering pizza and working on the startups," he said. "It's a little nerdy, but we enjoy it."

When Schuhmann graduates in May, he won't be looking for your run-of-the-mill job. Neither will many of his cohorts.

This year's crop of college graduates will - by some accounts - mark the first entrants of Generation Z into the workplace. And as the generation trades textbooks and all-nighters for cubicles and conference calls, North Carolina's leaders are trying to figure out how to accommodate this generation's creative tendencies and keep the state's most precious natural resource - brainpower - between its borders.

"This is a generation that wants to be able to contribute their ideas to organizations from day one," said Anita Brown-Graham, director of N.C. State's Institute for Emerging Issues.

The institute is hosting a forum on Monday and Tuesday to discuss the impact of Generation Z on North Carolina's economic and workforce development. For its purposes, the institute defines the generation as those born between 1990 and 2002. "The notion of waiting your turn in line is completely foreign to them," she said. "The workplace will change some of their expectations about what is reasonable, but it's also true that workplaces are going to have to find ways to accommodate this generation."

Who is Generation Z?

While opinions vary on who should be included in Generation Z, the institute chose its range based on the youngest of North Carolina's 2020 workforce, which will be mainly composed of 18-year-olds to 30-year-olds.

"The times are such that we could not ignore the economic impact that this cohort would have or not have depending on whether they are successful," Brown-Graham said. "If 1.5 million Generation Z-ers in North Carolina don't have success, North Carolina can't have success."

The institute hopes to discuss the unique traits of the generation and what challenges may lie ahead as its members come of age.

"For the first time, we face a scenario where one generation is likely to be less well off than their parents' generation on a number of criteria including earnings, overall quality of life, health and life expectancy," Brown-Graham said.

Seeing these economic shifts, however, may be yet another advantage that Generation Z has grown up with, said Andrew Yang, founder of the Venture for America program. The program places graduating seniors in the front lines of a startup for two years with the aim of preparing them to become entrepreneurs.

"The current college student has seen their parents and their peers trust in large institutions and then sometimes be disappointed," Yang said. "Organizations that people would not have thought were the least bit unstable a number of years ago have proven to be much more volatile.

"This generation is much more interested in equipping themselves with an array of skills that they can trust in than they are in investing a decade or two with the same company."

Ten percent of this year's Venture for American class of 50 students is made up of Triangle students - three from UNC-Chapel Hill and two from Duke. Moreover, Yang said the program expects to expand to the Raleigh-Durham area by 2013.

"We'll be keeping a body of very smart recent college grads in the area to help the regional growth companies continue to expand," he said. "We met with half a dozen companies and there are a lot of really great companies there that would make for phenomenal experiences."

'Citizens of the world'

Local universities are also doing their part to prepare America's newest crop of entrepreneurs. Duke, N.C. State and UNC all have entrepreneurship programs for students interested in working in startups upon graduation or learning the creative processes necessary to turn an idea into a business.

Buck Goldstein, UNC's Entrepreneur in Residence and a senior lecturer for the entrepreneurship minor, said the potential he sees in his students often far surpasses the expectations of their elders.

"They're empowered because they have so many tools readily available to them," he said. "They have more choices - even in a difficult economy - with what they're doing with their lives. They view themselves much more as citizens of the world."

But that doesn't necessarily mean North Carolina doesn't have what it takes to harness this generation's potential, Goldstein said. The key, he says, is creating opportunities within the state that make it hard to leave.

"If you look at the ecosystem, innovative ecosystems, there are not too many much better than RTP," Goldstein said. "It's all here, the intellectual capital is here. "Even in tough times, there's a lot of resources aimed at innovation, and that's the kind of environment knowledge workers want."

Jordan Edwards, an N.C. State business major concentrating in entrepreneurship, said she hopes to stay in the area after she graduates in May. She's aiming to get a full-time position with her current internship employer - Riley Life Logistics in Durham.

"I like to learn about as much as I can and not be tied down to one specific area," said Edwards, who is doing marketing work for Riley Life in addition to hands-on training about how the business operates.

She also hopes to one day start her own business and understands the appeal entrepreneurship has for her generation - one that has grown up with MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

"We're very used to change, and it's kind of exciting to know that you're not going to be doing the same thing every day," she said. "It's kind of hard to keep our attention. Sitting at a desk for an extended period of time in clothes that are uncomfortable is not that appealing to most of us."

Work hard, play hard

Reeling Generation Z into the workplace is one thing. Accommodating the way they work is an entirely different story, Brown-Graham said.

"The notion that there are certain times you're working and certain times off of work is foreign to them," she said. "This is a generation on a more social level. They're going to want more flexible work schedules."

Fitch Carrere, a UNC senior getting a minor in entrepreneurship, spent spring 2011 working for Durham's Appia, a startup that brings app stores to smartphones. Though the company had 55 employees while he worked there, the environment had many features of a startup, he said.

"I was probably physically there two days a week, but I probably worked four days a week for them, often at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. at night," said Carrere, who was developing marketing materials for the company. "It's a great place to work. Most of the walls are glass and (there's) IdeaPaint so you can write on the walls."

Other adjustments employers may have to make is the speed at which they operate and the drive that motivates Generation Z to do more.

To adjust to both of these conditions, Goldstein suggests that companies streamline and reduce bureaucracy.

"Information is flowing way too fast to have a lot of hierarchy," he said. "Our students understand that. They don't have time for it. Flat organizations can process information and make decisions much faster."

But the last, perhaps best, piece of advice for learning how to work with Generation Z is given by Gary Alan Miller, an assistant director at UNC's career services office.

"As I work with students, there's as much difference as there is commonality," he said. "Any time we're trying to generalize, there's always going to be a challenge."

Stilwell: 919-829-4649

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