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The endangered legacy of the American risk-taker

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The legacy of the American risk-taker is born out of exploration, oppression, democracy, and the promise of the American Dream.

We can conjure the images of American risk-takers from the rebels of the American Revolution, to Harriet Tubman and Harvey Milk, Sally Ride to Sergey Brin.

As a startup nation founded on the risk of the American idea, we must see the potential offered by innovation, big ideas, and experimentation in every face and every place across the nation. For America to fulfill the promise of the American Dream, we must be a country fueled by risk-takers: people willing, and able, to take the calculated risk.

Yet, risk is often associated with a fear of financial instability, recklessness, or worse, as the opportunity of a privileged class. So, we ask, “Is the legacy of the American risk-taker endangered, or just evolving?”

To spark this conversation, we asked for the perspectives of thoughtful people who live and work on risk’s front lines.

An appetite for risk’s reward

Dell Gines

“Risk is coupled with reward. The two must be talked about at the same time. We take economic risks all the time, betting on the value of that student loan debt relative to the long run income the college degree will give us in the labor market, the mortgage we take today with the assumption that the neighborhood will remain good in the future and the house will appreciate in the future. Risk is agnostic, it exists in every activity we undertake. What we take risks on is what matters.”

Dell Gines, MBA, MSF, CEcD, Senior Community Development Advisor
Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City – Omaha Branch

“We have not lost our appetite [for risk], we simply have not created an environment that promotes risk taking. Our educational system was designed for the first industrial revolution. We have defined success by getting the single right answer to thousands of standardized questions. We punish wrong answers, which creates a motivation to not experiment or even ask questions that might be considered ‘dumb.'”

Gregg Brown, Network Coordinator, CAPs

“I would argue that the most important skill for young people is to be able to make ‘cost-benefit’ calculations that include some measure of the underlying risk and the distribution of rewards. This kind of economic literacy would help make better decisions in many different circumstances.”

Sari Kerr, Senior Research Scientist, Wellesley Centers for Women

“In words and action, people are saying that we need a more fearless America and more fearless world where more individuals and institutions allow urgency to push them to boldly take forward new ideas and solutions. Instead of complacency, I’ve seen more people than ever moved to let the urgency of the moment conquer their fears and, based on these experiences, I am optimistic that Americans have not lost their appetite for risk, particularly when they see the opportunity to make transformational changes.”

Jean Case, Author, Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose

The myth of American bootstraps

“For me personally I believe that the American dream is still alive. If the American dream is that given the opportunity and the runway of equity, you can create something that’s very viable and survive – if that’s the American dream – I 100% believe it’s still alive.

“But if the American dream is pull yourself up by your bootstraps no matter what’s happening to you, that’s complete BS. That’s not the case. You need a runway. You need an equitable opportunity to put your boots on. You need to be able to get access to the same boots that everybody else got. When you can do that, I believe that if that is what the American dream is, then absolutely.”

Shelly Bell, Founder, Black Girl Ventures

“Unfortunately, opportunity today is mostly limited to those with the means to achieve it. For many Americans, increasing wealth inequality has severely limited these opportunities. For other groups, like African Americans, we have never been granted these same types of opportunities.

“Consider the enormity of the racial wealth gap in this country. In 2016, the median wealth of a non-retired African American was $13,460, just 9.5% of the $142,180 that white Americans held at the same time. Researchers have found that the racial wealth gap is costing us an estimated 9 million more jobs and our national income $300 billion per year.

“When I was growing up in Baltimore, I saw first-hand the way opportunities were limited for my community. As beautiful as Baltimore is, it’s a living example of the failures of our economy. It is a case study on post-industrialization, mass incarceration, anti-black racism, and structural racism. Growing up as a young black male was not easy; I had to navigate the police, threats to my life, and living somewhere surrounded by violence.

“I was fortunate to grow up in a two-parent household with both parents working. But I saw their struggle working two and three jobs. I heard that narrative, ‘If you work hard, things will work for you.’ But I witnessed my parents working very hard, and yet, I did not see that adage apply to us. What I saw instead were the sacrifices. But I also witnessed the beautiful things that people did every day, stitching together full lives despite all the challenges. I walked away recognizing that there’s a tremendous capacity for people, but we need to deeply interrogate and work against the structures that work against them.”

Rodney Foxworth, CEO, Common Future

“Research shows that women and people of color disproportionately lack access to the capital, support, and networking that young companies need to grow. By failing to give all aspiring entrepreneurs the same advantages, we may very well be stifling the creators of the next great innovations.

“We have the opportunity to energize our economy by expanding our reach when it comes to investing in promising new companies. If we seize this opportunity to democratize entrepreneurship and build more inclusive businesses, we will strengthen our economy and make sure that anyone from anywhere has a fair shot at the American dream.”

Jean Case, Author, Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose

An entrepreneurial mindset in the decline of American entrepreneurship

John Dearie

“People understand that risk can’t be completely eliminated – and even shouldn’t be eliminated. Risk is a healthy thing and helps to clarify the mind when determining options. But … people need resources and programs that help them mitigate and deal with risk. They need to know that if they take a risk and fail – which may be likely – their lives and their family’s lives won’t be ruined. They need to know that alternatives exist that they can turn to in the event that a venture does not work out.

“Policy plays a major role in determining the nation’s appetite for risk by influencing the degree to which various ‘life risks’ are effectively mitigated or not. There is significant evidence that America’s appetite for risk has diminished significantly in recent years. Job anxiety is a major risk factor for many Americans, along with stagnant wages. The cost of healthcare – and the fact that most Americans get their healthcare from a corporate employer – has contributed to risk aversion. The expense of quality childcare is another major source of anxiety for many Americans, and yet Congress hasn’t acted.

“Rates of entrepreneurship are in decline, especially among younger Americans. The share of Americans under 30 who own a business has plunged 65% since the 1980s and is now at a 25-year low. Some have attributed this risk aversion to the 2009 financial crisis and the impact of that searing experience. Other factors like mounting student debt are also important. An analysis released last May found that ‘student debt is negatively related to the propensity to start a firm, particularly larger and more successful ventures.'”

John Dearie, Founder and President, Center for American Entrepreneurship

“We have seen a disturbing decline in the number of new business start-ups and have grown a gap between graduates and employment opportunities because of a lack of critical skills. We need to redesign education to integrate school with the community to include industry and post-secondary institutions. We need to build curriculum that develops the professional skills of critical thinking and working on teams.”

Gregg Brown, Network Coordinator, CAPS

“The education system was designed to support the industrial manufacturing economy and produce workers. It has been slow to change to meet the demands of the new economic reality we face, which includes the necessity for greater entrepreneurship.

“The creation of a small business would be more ‘normal’ in an era before massive consolidation and corporations leveraging huge economies of scale to drive down price points and expand the range of goods sold in a single location (i.e., Wal-Mart). For example, if Wal-Mart replaces 15 local businesses then it is absolutely logical that the generation coming behind that would be less likely to start a business that would compete with Wal-Mart and instead look to be a senior manager at Wal-Mart or its equivalent. This may explain the stagnation in business dynamism over the past few decades – risk versus reward.

“Industrial education then moved into corporate focused education, where the dominant narrative became, ‘You go to school to get a good job,’ with little consideration for training those who create jobs (entrepreneurs) and the elimination of skilled trades training, in favor or prepping students for corporate work. This culture of ‘school-to-job’ reduced the perception of risk for school, while increasing the perception of risks of starting a company.”

Dell Gines, MBA, MSF, CEcD, Senior Community Development Advisor
Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City – Omaha Branch

“If risk-taking was supported – or the risk of taking risks was effectively mitigated through policy – the economy would be much more dynamic and healthy, as more Americans would be willing to leave corporate employers to start new businesses, move to other cities or countries in pursuit of better opportunities, get married earlier, buy homes, and start families.”

John Dearie, Founder and President, Center for American Entrepreneurship

The modern American risk-taker

“I think the modern American risk taker needs to be entrepreneurial in their thinking even if they are not a traditional entrepreneur who creates a novel product or service to fill a market need. This means more abstract thinkers, critical thinkers, and innovators who can look at problems and opportunities from multiple different perspectives and organize resources to create and scale solutions. I think this risk taker needs to look at how to include and leverage the power of diverse individuals and groups to ensure that any disruptive or incremental change they create adds value to the whole and not just a few whenever possible.”

Dell Gines, MBA, MSF, CEcD, Senior Community Development Advisor
Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City – Omaha Branch

“[I think of] Greta Thunberg, and when you look at the kids that stood up with the school shooting and they spoke on the mall, I’m looking at them and being constantly inspired by the things they think of. We’re listening to them.

“You’ve got multiple generations in one workforce now. You’ve got multiple generations listening to the same music. In this moment in time, in terms of who those risk takers are, they have the ability to reach anyone who will listen. You’re not limited to the people right in front of you.”

Shelly Bell, Founder, Black Girl Ventures

“We actually see that those with the opportunity to take risks are oftentimes the least inclined to take it. Consequently, there are countless mechanisms and norms that function to protect investors from perceived failure. What we need in this country are for those with this power to begin questioning what it means to ‘fail.’ What it means to give up some of this power and take more risks.

“I firmly believe that those closest to the problem are able to see the ‘right’ solution. What we need to begin doing is valuing the wisdom and skillsets of leaders from diverse communities. First and foremost, we need to build trust.

“The enormity of the problems we face today, from threats to our democracy to the degree of the wealth divide, have begun affecting all of us – not just the marginalized. We need leaders in our most powerful institutions, from global philanthropy to positions of political power, to begin thinking differently about what it means to invest in our greatest asset – our diverse constituency. When we invest in our people, this country can flourish once again.

Rodney Foxworth, CEO, Common Future

“The Risk Optimistic” is about belief: the assurance that taking a chance is worthwhile, even without knowing the outcome. It’s also the belief that if we value and support risk – in policy, community, and culture – we benefit from each person’s ability to make choices to achieve success. With this initiative, Kauffman kicks off 2020 with insights, stories, and opportunities to explore what it means to take risks, and own your own success, however you choose to define it.


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