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Good Will Hunting

Families key to promoting youth entrepreneurship

Against a backdrop of negativity, normal teen behavior is too often mischaracterized. Indeed, a seemingly endless trickle of news reports, studies and anecdotal storytelling paints Generation Y—those born between 1983 and 2004—as narcissistic, uninvolved and lacking in empathy. Clearly, the purveyors of these observations have not spent much time with kids. Instead they perpetuate the long-standing myth of adolescence as a time principally marked by ricocheting moods, rolling eyes and slamming doors, or "storm and stress" as G. Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association, bluntly put it.

Fortunately, there's a research-based view that tells another story—at least with regard to today's teenagers.

The reveal comes in the work of young adults to improve their lives, families, schools and communities—often through entrepreneurial behavior directed at helping others.

Research from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, conducted by SurveyTellingence, Inc., highlights the work of young social entrepreneurs, who appear to be both people and values-oriented, sharing with their business entrepreneur counterparts an ability to gather the resources to get things done.

The data also reveal key variables statistically tied to entrepreneurial interest and behavior, including having family responsibility in childhood (such as household chores and taking care of younger siblings) and receiving information from elders.

Youth interested in social entrepreneurship possessed many of the same background traits and experiences as those pursuing economic ends, but community-service-minded individuals were more likely to express commitment to faith and values, report interaction with positive peers, and have greater motivation to develop healthy social connections with others. Additional factors, such as increased exposure to grandparents, foreign travel and attending summer camp also influence entrepreneurial activity regardless of whether that fulfills business or community-based goals.

Common characteristics of those creating positive change also include sociability, adaptability, motivation and optimism.

That final trait—optimism—and “positive thinking” are predictive of better health outcomes, including those related to length of life span, rates of depression, and coping skills during times of hardship and stress (Mayo Clinic, 2014). They are also the focus of cognitive behavioral approaches to psychotherapy and the mindfulness paradigm applied to addiction and recovery.

Not insignificantly, the traits of entrepreneurs—both social and business—taken in totality represent the type of “non-cognitive” skills that employers say they are looking for.

According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, changes are evident in how people interact with those around them: “The ways in which Americans, as citizens, engage in their communities, their country and the world are changing and expanding. The challenges of being a responsible, effective citizen are more diverse, nuanced and complex than in the past. Sustaining our democracy, strengthening economic competitiveness and meeting local, state, national and global challenges demands a broader vision of citizenship.”

Which brings us back to our young social entrepreneurs.

By temperament and training, they are poised to move beyond doing good to doing well, perhaps becoming the Richard Bransons, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerbergs of tomorrow.

And their families may very well play a vital role in engendering such outcomes.

Leann Mischel, Ph.D., an entrepreneurship-track professor at Susquehanna’s Sigmund Weis School of Business, and one of the study’s lead investigators, points out that entrepreneurial skills can be taught, stating, “It is established fact that parents may be most influential in encouraging and modeling entrepreneurial behavior.”

Whatever the source, it is clear that young people benefit from receiving assignments, engaging in dialogue about faith and values, hearing stories of successful entrepreneurs, developing close relationships with the adults in their lives and receiving encouragement about their chances for success.

Others seem to agree.

For example, Jennifer Hall, Ph.D., of the Leadership Development Institute at Eckerd College, says, “The results of the CARE research are important for teens and those who influence them,” going on to list other traits of entrepreneurs measured by the Entrepreneurial Dimensions Profile (EDP) she helped develop: persistence, future focus and idea generation. “These young people—with the help of their parents and other caring adults—can truly help to shape the social and economic landscape of the future.”

In the meantime, they can be found goodwill hunting.

Stephen Gray Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is also a senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, and a parenting expert and blogger at For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit

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