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Archive for Thursday, November 11, 2004

Twentysomethings becoming own bosses

College graduates take entrepreneurial risks in tough job market

November 11, 2004

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— Sarah Levy loved being a restaurant pastry chef, but not the long hours, the relatively low pay or the constant yelling that goes on in high-stress kitchens.

So this spring, the 23-year-old Chicagoan moved to a different kitchen -- at her parents' home -- and launched her own business, Sarah's Pastries & Candies Inc.

"I feel better when I'm working for myself and building a name for myself," said Levy, who started turning a profit last month.

Levy's among the lucky ones -- she got financial backing from her dad to help start the business -- but she's not alone in her decision to strike out on her own. Young people across the country are doing the same, driven by everything from a wish for more flexibility to a chance to test their ideas.

A few recent college graduates, including 22-year-old Noah Thomas, say the tough job market they encountered last spring also motivated them to create their own options. Thomas, who lives in Columbia, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in marketing and finance, spent about three months looking for a job with no luck.

"Nothing was happening for me," Thomas said. "I didn't hear back from a lot of people -- didn't even know what happened to my resumes."

So with a small amount of savings in his pocket, he started checking out less-expensive franchise options and bought into All About Honeymoons, a travel business that specializes in trips for newlyweds. As his business gets off the ground, he also teaches an SAT prep course to supplement his income.

Nationwide, it's difficult to estimate the number of young small-business owners: The federal Small Business Administration does not keep statistics by age.

But there are signs of growth. The Virginia-based Young Entrepreneurs' Organization -- a group founded in 1987 that requires $1 million in annual sales before it will admit a business owner -- now counts 95 U.S. members younger than 30 in its ranks.

Sarah Levy, 23, spreads dark chocolate out on a granite countertop
for a candy she calls Dark Chocolate Delight in her parents'
kitchen in Chicago. Levy, a former restaurant pastry chef, started
her own business, "Sarah's Pastries & Candies Inc." at her
parents' home in March and started turning a profit last month.

Sarah Levy, 23, spreads dark chocolate out on a granite countertop for a candy she calls Dark Chocolate Delight in her parents' kitchen in Chicago. Levy, a former restaurant pastry chef, started her own business, "Sarah's Pastries & Candies Inc." at her parents' home in March and started turning a profit last month.

And a first-time survey done this year by the National Association for the Self-Employed found that about 15 percent of its members were in their 20s or early 30s.

Gene Fairbrother, a small business consultant at the Texas-based nonprofit, said that the percentage was significant because -- even as recently as three years ago -- young people rarely called for any sort of small-business advice.

"But not anymore," said Fairbrother, who believes cutbacks in some job sectors have played a role. He also credits the growing number of university programs that focus on entrepreneurship.

That doesn't mean that self-employment is for everyone, said Stacey Mayo, an Atlanta-based certified career coach.

Some people, she said, start researching a business of interest only to realize that they'd rather fine-tune their current career than deal with the headaches of long hours and the tough decisions a boss has to make.

Even so, she said, "it's definitely worth exploring."

Even if self-employment is not a long-term endeavor, it can be a way to stay afloat during a job search. That's what 29-year-old Frank Strong learned after he got laid off from a startup public relations consulting firm in 2002.

"I resolved to learn what I could as a freelancer until the right opportunity came along," said Strong, who lives in Arlington, Va., and now has a full-time job with a business communications firm -- much to his relief.

"Out on my own, the full gravity of capitalism -- with both its opportunities and its drawbacks -- set in," said Strong, who was kept up many a night worrying about money.

Flexibility key

Ana Sanchez, a graphic artist and recent art school graduate, said she'd still rather have flexibility than job security.

"Freelancing keeps me on my toes," the 22-year-old New Yorker said. "It forces me to do my best work because I know that my next job depends on my performance."

Conor McDonough agrees. He recently left the Web design job he landed after graduating from Cornell University last year.

"I got dissatisfied with the rigid structure of the whole deal," he said. "There wasn't enough room for my own expression."

McDonough now runs his own Web design firm, OffThePathMedia.com -- mostly from his home base of New York. But he's found that having his own Web-based business has another advantage: He can do it from just about anywhere, allowing him to travel to Boston on short notice to gather around a TV with friends as the Red Sox won the World Series.

"That definitely would not be possible if I worked for a big corporation," said McDonough, who's able to make a living and has hired freelancers to help with some jobs.

Back in Chicago, Levy already has hired some part-time staff to help her fill candy and pastry orders -- working to the sound of music videos playing on a TV in the background. Mom and dad stay out of the way, too. And she makes it a point to be a placid boss.

"My kitchen atmosphere is definitely very calm," she said. "No yelling."

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