Steve Case, Steve Jobs & Sweet (dis)Solve

I got the chance to spend an evening interviewing two American entrepreneurs in Times Square recently. One was Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL, and the other was Zoe Damacela, a 19-year-old who runs her own clothing company. We were the halftime show during the national business competition held by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship—an organization that goes into low-income high schools to help kids learn to start their own businesses. We watched four kids pitch their business ideas to a panel of accomplished entrepreneurs, and then, while the judges deliberated, we realized a few things:

Entrepreneurs come out of the closet early. Both Steve and Zoe started businesses before they could be legally hired as employees. Zoe sold greeting cards as a little girl, and Steve did, too. But both had trouble getting taken seriously. We say we love innovation in this country, but we don’t always celebrate the just-this-side-of-crazy risk-taking and hard work it takes to start a business.

* Steve Jobs could have ended up in a jumpsuit instead of a black turtleneck. We talked a bit about Jobs, since he had just passed away. He knew the value of a great education—and how it can make or break a child. Here is what Jobs said in 1995:

“I know from my own education that if I hadn’t encountered two or three individuals that spent extra time with me, I’m sure I would have been in jail. I’m 100% sure that if it hadn’t been for Mrs. Hill in fourth grade and a few others, I would have absolutely have ended up in jail. I could see those tendencies in myself to have a certain energy to do something. It could have been directed at doing something interesting that other people thought was a good idea or doing something interesting that maybe other people didn’t like so much.”

* The recovery of the U.S. economy and U.S. jobs will be led by entrepreneurs. We can choose to help them—by changing immigration laws to help attract and retain talented entrepreneurs from around the world, by making it easier for people to start businesses without worrying about losing their health insurance, and by helping successful companies grow more quickly. Or not.

Case and others recently met with President Obama to push him to pursue a 16-point plan for energizing entrepreneurship in America. I don’t know if this strategy is the right one—or if it has any chance of succeeding, given what has happened with Obama’s jobs bill.

But I agreed with Case when he says this:  “If we’re worried about the economy, and everybody should be, if you’re worried about employment, and everybody should be, the answer is really doubling down on entrepreneurship as a core American value….We have to. Because there really isn’t a Plan B.

After that, the judges announced their winner: Congratulations to Hayley Hoverter, CEO of Sweet (dis)SOLVE from Los Angeles, CA, the 16-year-old winner of the NFTE 2011 Challenge. Hayley won $10,000 in venture money to grow her business selling dissolvable sugar packets (no paper, no nonsense) to high-end coffee shops. Watching Hayley pitch her business plan, which was meticulous and smart, I started to think there may be hope for America after all…

EducationAmanda Ripley