How to Grow the U.S. Economy? Ask a Millennial
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The Fiscal Times
June 6, 2014

In a week focused on entrepreneurs in D.C., millennials try to break their stereotype as the entitled generation

It’s a big, strong name – a label that conjures up images of pizza, hipsters and hashtags. But many millennials are over being called millennials, tired, they say, of the stereotypes and baggage many associate with their generation.

You know: Self-entitled. Self absorbed. Ski hats in summer. A selfie, and then another, to share with their 1,000 closest friends on Facebook.  

“People are sick of being categorized,” says Donna Khalife, a young Washington, D.C., entrepreneur. “You’ll find millennials who don’t even want to be called millennials.”

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A name change, or a rebranding anyway, was a hot topic of conversation as millennials gathered in the nation’s capital for Millennial Week to share ideas, lively conversation and, yes, focus on themselves.

Recent findings by the Pew Research Center paint a broader economic picture of this demographic. Their study shows that young people ranging in age from 18 to 33 are largely unattached to organized religion and politics, deeply connected through social media, facing record amount of student debt, distrustful of people - and yet, they are remarkably upbeat about their economic future.

More than 80 percent say they either currently “have enough money to lead their lives” (32 percent) or “expect to in the future” (53 percent). At the same time, more than half of millennials doubt there will be any money for them in the Social Security system by the time they retire.

Dan Mindus, fresh from millennial central casting - grey T-shirt, blue jeans and a scruffy beard - completes the picture with his Harvard Business School background. At Wednesday night’s Entrepreneur’s Forum, held at WeWork, a Wonder Bread factory turned dynamic workspace for start-ups and small businesses, Mindus and others made the case that millennials are best suited to spark new economic growth with enterprising new start ups because they don’t fear risk and failure as much as their parents or grandparents.

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Mindus is the founder of NextGen Angels, a company comprised of young entrepreneurs that invites angels under the age of 40 to invest in startups. “It’s incredibly hard to start a company,” he told The Fiscal Times. “Yes, young people have the passion and the energy. But sometimes it’s better if you just jump off a cliff without even knowing what you’re getting in to.”

Michael Lastoria is a repeat cliff jumper – a “serial entrepreneur,” says Mindus. Lastoria’s latest venture, “&pizza,” described as a disruptive fast-casual pizza concept, is quickly expanding. “But nothing ever happens in the time frame you think it’s going to happen,” he says. “With entitlement comes this idea that things will happen over night.”

Born in 1980, Lastoria is technically a millennial, but he remembers the days before Facebook and Twitter - even before Blackberry. “Silicon Valley has screwed up people’s minds on what life is like.” His advice: “Bank on how you wake up every day and prepare yourself for the unknown.”

Donna and Rosy Khalife live by those words. They are sisters and co-founders of SurpriseRide.com, a D.C.-based service that designs activity boxes and fosters a lifelong love of learning.

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It’s the ability to adapt to the unknown that Rosy Khalife, the younger of the two sisters, says is both the challenge and gift of entrepreneurship. “The hardest thing,” she says, “is not really knowing. Every day is uncertain. One day, you plan that all day you’ll be working on marketing, one specific thing for your business. And then, you wake up that morning and you have some other problem that you need to solve. So you become the lawyer of the team, or the accountant. You are kind of like Jello, fitting into whatever the mold is for that day,” she says. “Whatever happens, you just need to make it work. It’s the uncertainty that makes our job so challenging.” 

The Khalife sisters are in a special niche. Many millennials are out of work or struggling to get their ideas funded. Donna Khalife recalls the stress of getting ready to pitch their business on ABC’s hit series, Shark Tank. 

But might ‘entrepreneur’ just be a fancy code word for unemployed, an excuse to hang around cool retrofitted spaces like WeWork? Donna says most young entrepreneurs start companies because they are disenchanted with their jobs, not because they can’t get jobs. She’s right about the disenchantment part. An ongoing Gallup study of the American workplace from 2010 through 2012 found that 70 percent of Americans with full-time jobs either hated their work or simply “checked out.”

Both Khalife sisters rejected job offers before starting their company. “I think [entrepreneurship] comes from a search for meaning. People want something that gives them purpose,” says Donna Khalife.

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As Mindus sees it, there’s something special about that search for purpose in the nation’s capital. “In D.C., we have a real asset in the intellectual energy that has long been here. Because the federal government exists here, you have intelligent, creative, well-educated people who are striving,” he says. “But more and more of them are realizing that the way to have a significant impact in the world is by creating a high-growth company. It is not just though non-profits or government service.”

In other words, the traditional way of doing things is fading. So too is the idea that all millennials want and do the same things. “People are searching for that grey area,” says Donna. “People are searching to carve out their own path.”

The Khalife sisters’ business cards perhaps state the millennial message best: “The world in a box. Join the ride!”

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Reilly Dowd is a senior writer at The Fiscal Times. Based in Washington, D.C., she covers national politics, economic policy, technology, and elections. She has previously worked at Al Jazeera America, SnagFilms, ABC News, CNN and in the Obama White House.