A little over a decade ago, most students relied on leather-bound encyclopedias, like the Britannica, for their studies. Then, along came technology — specifically the Internet — to flip the script. Suddenly, information that had been available only to subscribers willing to pay for it was opened up to the world.
Wikipedia, the crowdsourced digital answer to traditional encyclopedias, took it even further and leveraged speed, technology, collaboration and scale to ultimately push Britannica’s print books out of business.
On Labor Day, Scott Gerber, president and founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), hopes to tap into precisely this brand of technology, scale and openness to change the way startup mentorship is done, with the launch of StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program for young entrepreneurs.
"In the age of the knowledge economy, this is where we have to go to maintain competitiveness with the rest of the world,” Gerber says.
By tapping into the knowledge base of the YEC, whose members collectively generate over $1 billion in revenue each year, and partnering with Citi for the venture, Gerber hopes to increase the success of young entrepreneurs in America.
Featured rock star mentors in the program include Catherine Cook of MeetMe, Jennifer Fleiss of Rent the Runway, Slava Rubin of Indiegogo, Jason Nazar of Docstoc, Ryan Allis of Connect, Matt Mickiewicz of 99designs and Rahim Fazal of Involver.
One of Gerber’s goals with StartupLab is to retrain and reshape the way young people are educated. Far too many are saddled with mountains of student-loan debt and have little more than scant work experience and a liberal arts degree to show for it upon graduation. And even when they do study business, too much time is spent on theoretical rather than experiential learning.
“Entrepreneurship is just going out there and just doing it. That's why you can't learn it out of a textbook. That's why schools have a hard time teaching it,” Gerber says. “Opening up an entrepreneurship mind takes going there.”
Now more than ever, young people need to find something to do. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in July 2012 was 17.1 percent. Stories continue to churn through the media about young college graduates, unable to find work, being forced to live at home with their parents.
To Gerber, this is partly because so many young people have come to expect that opportunities will be handed to them rather than having to create their own. They have skills that they could use to start their own business but don’t even realize it.
“The bottom line is that many people that know how to fix a car don't know how to own an auto body shop,” he says.
With most startup labs and accelerators, entrepreneurs are asked to apply for a program and go through a series of interviews before being accepted into the class. Gerber respects this process of mentorship and training but says it doesn’t help enough entrepreneurs find their footing.
"Mentorship from the right people and groups is still powerful,” Gerber says. “But it will not be able to have the reach that technology can offer. Mentorship has not caught up to the digital age yet."
That’s where automation and data analytics can step in. By offering up YEC members for live chats and one-on-one sessions, while also producing content like e-books and online lessons, Gerber hopes to reach large groups of people rather than the small class sizes of many startup incubators.
"We are trying to figure out a way to take that one-to-one, personalized experience to hundreds of thousands,” he says.
Delivered through a Facebook app, the YEC will be able to collect data on what young entrepreneurs are reading, using and sharing and then use the information to build more resources that can produces more successful outcomes for more young people.
According to Gerber, the eventual goal is to size up young entrepreneurs, understand their unique characteristics on things like race, gender and industry of interest, and pair them with the right resources automatically, based on information from the StartupLab database.
Young entrepreneurs interested in joining the StartupLab can sign up at http://mystartuplab.com/.