Michael Simmons started a web development company at age 16 and earned $40,000 working 10 hours a week during his senior year of high school. He had watched his mother, a government employee, earn two percent raises annually. When he realized how much control self-employment gave him over his income, he says, “I was amazed no one else in my school had started a business.”
Even once he arrived at New York University, he says, he was disappointed not to find many other entrepreneurial-minded people. The one he met during freshman orientation, Sheena Lindahl, became his business partner and wife.
He published the bestselling Student Success Manifesto during college, and with Lindahl co-founded Empact, an organization that inspires other young people to explore entrepreneurship and strives to nurture a culture of entrepreneurship in struggling communities.
Business Week named her a top-25 entrepreneur under age 25 in 2006, and he, now 31, has won entrepreneur-of-the-year awards from the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, Fleet, and the National Coalition for Empowering Youth Entrepreneurship.
In 7 years, Empact has organized 600 events that have brought business founders to speak on college campuses in 45 states. “A lot of communities outside of the tech hotbeds get very little exposure to entrepreneurship as a career path,” Simmons says. “If you don’t see it in your parents, you aren’t exposed to business ownership.”
Empact focuses on community colleges where few young entrepreneur role models are in alumni networks. The schools or community economic development funds pay Empact to come to campus in hopes of slowing the brain-drain to Silicon Valley and New York that many of them experience. Simmons says his events draw about 175 people, and are many students’ first exposure to entrepreneurship. “We inspire them to think bigger, set goals, and go after them,” he says.
Empact success stories are abundant. Simmons says Ryan Everson was still in high school when he attended an Empact event at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He was inspired to buy a used ambulance for $3,000 and start Computer Doctors, a company that made house calls to repair PCs. (Neighbors were alarmed to see an ambulance in the driveway, but it was a great marketing ploy, Simmons notes.) “By the time Ryan graduated, he was doing $1 million in revenue,” he says.
Another young man who is now an Empact speaker was also inspired by an event in Wisconsin. “He came from a tough background and was the first person in his family to go to college,” Simmons says. “He decided entrepreneurship was the path for him.”
Simmons says he tries to find speakers that his audience can relate to. “People are quick to discount why someone else could succeed,” he says. “Zuckerberg went to Harvard, people have rich parents, come from privileged backgrounds, or have connections.” So he features young speakers who went to community college, started with nothing, overcame crippling debt, or grew up in the projects of Brooklyn or a rural area far from any technology ecosystem. “Hearing those stories and meeting those people has untold implications,” Simmons says.
Empact has also extended its reach around the globe. Through a partnership with the U.S. State Department, the organization has hosted events in Nigeria, Kuwait, and Malaysia. Why is the State Department nurturing entrepreneurship overseas? Simmons notes that the world’s under-30 population is huge and growing. “In markets where there is no economic future and nothing to lose,” he says, encouraging people to start legitimate businesses could reduce participation in terrorism and drug trafficking. “Entrepreneurship has so many different benefits.”