Graduation season is upon us and this one will be satisfying and consequential, especially for the more than 3 million U.S. high school students who navigated the perils of the pandemic for the last two years. We all have high hopes for these graduates and a stake in the future they will help build. No doubt, many commencement speakers are advising them to follow their passion, commit to hard work, and build a productive life of connection and meaning. Some grads will embark on those tasks by beginning college program while others instead will find a full-time job or join the gig economy. So what useful advice can we offer to a generation of young adults who want to make a living and also make a life?
Let’s start with a bit of entrepreneurial wisdom from 1790.
Ben Franklin, one of the nation’s founders, was a mercurial and creative polymath with boundless energy and curiosity. During his illustrious and long life, he was a writer, inventor, scientist, diplomat, and entrepreneur, and when he died in 1790, he left a legacy that continues to influence our economy today. Franklin was a member of an elite, educated class that crafted the U.S. Constitution. Yet, even more so than his peers, he also believed that skilled workers would shape the foundation of American democracy. In the new book Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet, University of Pittsburgh professor Michael Meyer lays out the fascinating story of how Franklin, on his death, gifted 2,000 pounds to each of his hometowns of Boston and Philadelphia to establish microloan funds to jumpstart the careers and businesses of coopers, blacksmiths, carpenters and others in the “leather apron” class. Meyer meticulously details the earliest loans, the growth of the two parallel funds through the Industrial Revolution and both world wars, and ultimately the political and legal squabbles around how each city would invest the substantial monies accrued as an intended distribution more than a hundred years later. Boston’s Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology continues to trace its skill-training roots to his legacy today. Franklin’s advice to recent grads: A master plumber can make as much as a primary-care physician — consider the pathway of a learned trade.
Franklin knew that skilled people create businesses, support themselves, hire others and center communities. In fact, as we fast-forward to 2022, Franklin’s perspective that essential skills aren’t just those taught in elite college classrooms remains prescient. Professor Danny Warshay, founding director of Brown University’s Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, undoubtedly agrees and in his terrific new book: See, Solve, Scale: How Anyone Can Turn An Unsolved Problem Into A Breakthrough Success, he urges us to think of entrepreneurship as a process that anyone, anywhere can learn. It starts, Warshaw argues, as an “anthropological approach” centered on three fundamental principles: seeing an unmet need, solvingthat need with a developed solution, and finally, scaling that solution to have big, long-term impact.
Warshay takes the reader step-by-step through a variety of examples in different sectors ranging from Imperfect Produce, which is solving the problem of food waste, to The Louverture Cleary School Network, which now is providing quality education to thousands of students in Haiti. Indeed, Warshay’s practical framework can help how both growth oriented and non-profit entrepreneurs — regardless of formal academic training and initial resources — take on some of the world’s biggest problems. Danny’s advice for new grads: find where your genuine joy meets a real need, then focus on sustainable change.
Of course, Franklin famously commented that our democracy will survive so long as we recognize our collective effort to keep it. He would want our new grads to connect their private ambitions to our common good. Free education, clean water, safe highway travel, and our system of justice are among the public goods that bind us together as a nation. In their important, new book The Privatization of Everything, researcher Donald Cohen and NYTimes editor Allen Mikaelian provide countless examples of how easily communities can lose when private interests take over day to day essential services. Their advice to new grads: be informed, get involved, and always read the fine print.
Franklin dispensed plenty of advice during his life: “Early to bed, early to rise makes one healthy, wealthy, and wise,” “Fish and visitors both stink after three days,” and other time-tested gems. As we celebrate the new graduates in our lives, we should all give Franklin’s life and legacy a thoughtful second look.
Authors & Innovators is an occasional column by Larry Gennari, a transactional lawyer, law professor, and chief curator of Authors & Innovators, an annual business book and ideas festival. Gennari also teaches Project Entrepreneur, a business fundamentals bootcamp for returning citizens, at BC Law School.