Last summer my nine-year-old twins set up a lemonade stand and sold the yellow elixir to thirsty Parade of Homes passersby. They learned the thrill of running their own business and having people buy and enjoy their wares. They learned about the cost of raw materials and pricing their product to make a profit. They learned about sitting around and persevering during the slow times waiting and hoping for busy times. And they learned how to make money apart from a wage handed down from an employer. For a brief few hours they were self-employed.
Our forefathers were also “lemonade-stand” immigrants, pioneers, and refugees, and most all of them succeeded, in some fashion, in creating a better life for themselves and their families. We were a nation of adventurers willing to strike out into the unknown and take chances on an uncertain future with dreams of prosperity. This came naturally to us: Our ancestors risked death on the high seas crammed into the bowels of often barely ocean worthy craft — all for the dream of a better life away from the rigid class structures ofEurope. They were of a different sort or breed compared with those who stayed behind. They were adventurers who were willing to take big risks, even facing death, on the hope of future rewards even if uncertain, improbable or unknown.
Over the last sixty or seventy years as we have reveled in our prosperity, we have largely lost it: the drive, determination, grit and tolerance for uncertainty that propelled us here. We go to college, get a degree and hope to find employment at a large corporation that will pay us well and give us a nice benefits package. If we get laid off, we look to the government for an unemployment check. Most of us don’t even know how to be self sufficient. To be fair, our technologically complex society has at least something to do with it: Many of us have specialized professions that do not easily translate into a skill or vocation outside of a bureaucratic company or the government.
At the start of and well into the 19th Century our forefathers and mothers moved West in search of a better life. And as it is with all who strike out from the comfortable and familiar, many failed. But some succeeded. Collectively, they built new towns, cities and states, and created wealth and prosperity where there was none before. In the East, a merchant class arose, following in the footsteps of renegade entrepreneurs like John Hancock who helped free the nation from rigid and stifling constraints of stuffy oldEngland. Our eastern cities began to rival those ofEurope and a new class was created: a large and prosperous middle class.
Around the turn of the last century, entrepreneurship exploded in this country as the industrial revolution spurred economic growth. And we invited in the people of the world who were fleeing economic desperation and political strife in their homelands. The immigrants didn’t just work for the corporations, they started new businesses: restaurants, ethnic delis, service stations and so many others that served the growing populace. My grandfather was among them: He leftGermanyin the 1920s. He started a nursery lost it and then started another business. As a kid, I remember him and several of his employees loading into a landscaping truck filled with rakes, lawn mowers and shovels and driving off to preen the manicured lawns ofLong Island.
Solving our country’s economic problems may well be within that lemonade stand. The way we grow our economy and as a society depends upon our ability to innovate and move forward. And for this we need people who think outside of the box and are willing to risk failure for the reward of self-determination. In the sixteenth century, they were called explorers. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they were called colonists. In the nineteenth century, they were pioneers, and for the last hundred years we have known them as entrepreneurs. Perhaps the lemonade stand will help my kids realize that they do not need the safety of a regular paycheck to survive and prosper but that all they need is a belief in themselves and their abilities.
And perhaps it is never too late for all of us to realize, explore and, once again, embrace these lessons.
[This column can also be viewed on ColoradoBiz Magazine's web site.]