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Review: Smart People Should Build Things by Andrew Yang

smart peopleThis review first ran in the April 28 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Smart People Should Build Things: How to Restore Our Culture of Achievement, Build a Path for Entrepreneurs and Create New Jobs in America

By Andrew Yang

Harper Business

$33.50

Kudos to you on graduating top of your class.

So what’s your next move?

Off to law school? Business school? Medical school?

How about choosing none of the above and opting instead for a Steeltown start-up?

Your parents may not approve but author Andrew Yang would congratulate you on a smart career move. And the rest of us here in Hamilton might just throw you a parade.

Yang is founder and CEO of Venture for America (there’s also a Venture for Canada for top grads north of the border). He’s out to create an army of company builders with a sense of purpose.  His non-profit enlists freshly minted grads south of the border to join start-ups and help revitalize cities and communities through entrepreneurship.

Right now, the best and brightest aren’t flocking to start-ups. They’re taking the lucrative and well-traveled path to work as bankers, lawyers, consultants and doctors in a handful of major cities.

“Achievers want to achieve and that’s what achievement now looks like,” laments Yang. “These structured paths are clearly laid out, and are pursued collectively by many – or most – of the students who have been screened and sorted as the academic and cognitive elite. These prestige pathways have become the default options.”

We’re witnessing a hyper-allocation of top talent flooding professional service industries. While it’s easy to see the upside, Yang cautions there’s a downside that too many grads ignore.

“If you work in professional services, you will be paid handsomely and have a brand-name firm on your resume. You’ll gain skills, confidence and exposure.

“But you may also become heavily socialized and specialized, more risk averse and accustomed to operating in resource-rich environments with a narrow set of deliverables. You’ll be likely to adopt an arm’s length relationship with your work. You won’t build anything; instead, you will compartmentalize and put the armor on each day as deals, clients and colleagues come and go.”

And should you find yourself bored, burned out or out of a job, Yang says it’s often toughen than anticipated to change careers.

At a start-up, you’re working on something you own, believe in and care about. “You’ll be 100 per cent engaged and motivated. You can lead an integrated life, as opposed to a compartmentalized one in which you play a role in an office and then try to forget about it when you get home. You can define an organization, not the other way around.”

The work will be gritty and unglamorous. Yet you’ll learn how to get things done. You’ll be comfortable making decisions working off limited knowledge. You’ll create and improve products.  You’ll know how to win and keep customers. And you’ll discover what it takes to hire, manage and lead a team.

All of that experience is great for a long and successful career. And it’s great for our community, given that start-ups and growing companies create the bulk of all new jobs.  “If you want to spur long-term job growth, you want as much talent as possible heading to new firms so that more of those firms can succeed, expand and hire even more people,” says Yang. “Having the right people early on can make the difference.”

Yang says it’s unrealistic to expect freshly minted grads to go forth and successfully launch companies on their own. “Building things is very, very hard. The best way to become an entrepreneur is to learn from a more experienced leader as he or she builds a company.”

Along with creating those hands-on learning opportunities, Venture for America provides training, networks and support for top grads who are working with start-ups in cities like Detroit, New Orleans and Cleveland.

So if you’re headed to a spring convocation cermeony, skip the obligatory copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and give this book instead to your freshly minted grad. And be sure to highlight one of Yang’s favourite quotes from an unknown source on page 68.

“Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t, so that you can spend the rest of life like most people can’t.”

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