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Researchers examine the secrets of successful young entrepreneurs

The Stanford Center on Adolescence, led by Bill Damon, has teamed up with researchers at Tufts University to learn how we can effectively foster enterprising skills among adolescents and young adults.

Prof. William Damon
Prof. William Damon

School of Education News
By Brianna Liang and Amy Yuen

The passing of Apple CEO Steve Jobs last fall has inspired a flurry of speculation about the roots of his entrepreneurial success. How do some entrepreneurs like Jobs develop their abilities to succeed at a young age? And how can we foster these enterprising qualities among young people?

These are questions that the Young Entrepreneurs Study (YES) project has been investigating. YES, a three-year, longitudinal study on entrepreneurship development among young adults, is a partnership between the Stanford Center on Adolescence and the Institute of Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University. The John Templeton Foundation has provided support to the project with a $2 million grant.  

YES examines how entrepreneurial purpose, achievements, character attributes, and skills are developed among diverse adolescents and young adults in the U.S. It seeks to identify the cognitive, motivational, behavioral, and environmental factors that help individuals develop enterprising skills.

“Entrepreneurship is a proven pathway to prosperity and freedom,” said Principal Investigator William Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence and a professor of education at Stanford University. “Yet little is known about how individuals develop such capacities during the years of youth and young adulthood, when entrepreneurship skills are often acquired. Without knowledge about how entrepreneurship abilities develop, efforts to create effective educational programs to foster entrepreneurial skills in young people will be limited in their effectiveness.”

Researchers are studying the development of entrepreneurship among over 4,000 youth from ages 15 to 27 over a three-year period. A wide range of racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse youth are participating from the Bay Area, the greater Boston area, and the Muncie, Indiana area. These areas were chosen for their diverse demographics, as well as for the presence of either general postsecondary educational institutions, or institutions focused on the enhancement of entrepreneurship.

Researchers will employ measurement models that assess youth entrepreneurial purpose and achievement, qualities of character and other attributes associated with youth entrepreneurship, as well as social support and mentoring. The investigators will employ the Bundick, et al. (2006) Stanford Youth Purpose Survey, a measure developed in Damon’s laboratory during a prior John Templeton-foundation supported project. In addition to this quantitative measure that will be administered to the entire sample, 32 subjects will participate in an interview sub-sample in order to provide a more elaborate qualitative understanding of entrepreneurial purpose and achievement.

Damon and other researchers hope that the results of the study will enable educators and business leaders with information about how to promote entrepreneurship achievement in adolescents and young adults from diverse backgrounds, including those who have grown up in disadvantaged settings.

“The fields of developmental science, economics, and education have not provided a lot of information about how entrepreneurship develops,” added Co-investigator Richard Lerner, the Bergstrom Chair in Applied Developmental Science at Tufts University and director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts. “We hope that YES will provide the empirical data needed for providing this understanding and for creating effective educational programs and policies designed to foster entrepreneurship interests and achievements among diverse youth.”

For more information about the Stanford Center on Adolescence and the Youth Entrepreneurship Study, visit http://coa.stanford.edu.