Perspective | Magazine

Forget coal mining. This is the economic future we should fight for.

President Trump must encourage the entrepreneurs who will build the jobs of tomorrow.

CLIMATE CHANGE: In this Thursday, May 12, 2016 photo, coal miner Scott Tiller walks through the morning fog before going underground in a mine less than 40-inches high in Welch, W.Va. For over a century, life in Central Appalachia has been largely defined by the ups and downs of the coal industry. There is a growing sense in these mountains that for a variety of reasons, economic, environmental, political, coal mining will not rebound this time. Coal's slump is largely the result of cheap natural gas, which now rivals coal as a fuel for generating electricity. Older coal-fired plants are being idled to meet clean-air standards. According to the Labor Department, there were 56,700 jobs in coal mining in March, down from 84,600 in March 2009, shortly after President Barack Obama entered office. There are stark differences between the two parties on energy and environment issues that underscore the sky-high stakes for both sides of the debate in the 2016 presidential race. Many environmental groups and Democrats fear a potential rollback of the Obama administration’s policies on climate change and renewable energy under a Republican president. Republicans all support coal production and enthusiastically back nuclear energy. They along with business groups are eager to boost oil and gas production following years of frustration with Obama. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
David Goldman/Associated Press
New jobs come from new businesses, not exhausted ones.

Leading up to his inauguration, Donald Trump has spent a lot of time saying he’s saving and creating jobs: 800 at Carrier one day, 5,000 at Sprint on another. On the campaign trail, he promised to put coal miners, steelworkers, and factory employees back to work.

But maybe instead of harping on industries that either can’t compete anymore (like coal) or have been decimated by automation (like manufacturing), Trump should find a way to encourage a route to employment that’s been proven to actually work. The fact is that most newly created jobs in America come from new businesses, and new businesses are started by entrepreneurs. We should be training more of them.

Entrepreneurs aren’t just out there waiting to emerge. Would-be entrepreneurs need encouragement, and they need to be taught the business basics: how to identify a good idea, test it, find markets, get funding, build a team, and scale quickly. Students enrolled in entrepreneurial education are more likely to launch their own businesses, have better jobs, and earn more money than their peers, according to a survey, published in 2015, of 91 studies from the US and 22 other countries. The European Union commissioned the research as part of its entrepreneurship plan “to bring Europe back to growth.”


Jennifer LaSala never thought of herself as an entrepreneur. Before her senior year at Chelsea High School she didn’t even know what one was. Then on the verge of dropping out, she enrolled in a business class led by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a national nonprofit focused on public schools in low-income communities. The class — where LaSala wrote a business plan for a bakery — changed her mind about her prospects.

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“I never knew I could actually start my own business as a career,” LaSala says. Her business plan won an armful of awards, and she made and sold cookies on the side to put herself through Johnson & Wales University, where she got an entrepreneurship degree in 2015. Last year, she opened Jennifer Lee’s Gourmet Bakery, specializing in items free of gluten and common allergens, at the Boston Public Market. In February she’s launching a second location in Peabody. LaSala, now 23, employs 16 people during her busy season. She told me that she wants people to know that you don’t have to be rich to become an entrepreneur — she wasn’t.

Boston-area schools fare particularly well in the Princeton Review’s 2017 list of top colleges for entrepreneurship. Babson ranks highest at the undergraduate level. Harvard is first for its grad program. Northeastern also made the list. Five years ago, UMass Lowell — rich with its own entrepreneurial offerings, including a medical device business accelerator — cofounded the Deshpande Symposium for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Higher Education, an annual gathering of educators, businesspeople, and policy planners hoping to expand these programs and get more students involved. Older students and those far from education hubs can access free online classes; edX, for example, has entrepreneurial offerings from MIT, Harvard, and Babson.

I teach publishing at Emerson College, best known for its theater-obsessed students and gigantic video and film department. But even Emerson is intent on grooming entrepreneurs. Students are offered courses in launching creative businesses, and can find seed money and advice in the school’s three-year-old incubator (where I’ve served as a mentor). Emerson Launch participants and alums are building an online marketplace for college freelancers, creating low-cost repair kits for walking canes for the blind, and producing and marketing a traditional Mexican drink.

Millennials are keenly interested in entrepreneurship, and I find it exciting to help them see that their everyday experiences and frustrations — “I wish there were a product that did X” — can provide the inspiration for the next great company. But surveys show that millennials launch fewer companies than older people. It’s not hard to understand why. Many are dealing with crushing student loans and looking for something safe. There’s also the fear of being without health insurance.


So what can Trump do? For one thing, he should recognize that many in the startup community say that his proposals to restrict immigration and trade likely won’t help them and might even hurt. He should fulfill his campaign promise to make student loan repayments more manageable, despite objections from many in his party. He could rethink the repeal of Obamacare, which, whatever its faults, frees potential entrepreneurs from being tied down to a job just for the insurance. And he should work to bridge the digital divide, which leaves poor people and those living in rural areas (many of whom voted for him) with the kind of weak Internet service that hinders their ability to innovate and connect with the open marketplace.

There’s no evidence any of this is a priority for Trump. There’s not a single mention of the word “entrepreneur” on the economy pages of his campaign website. But maybe he’ll come around. Entrepreneurship might be the best route to job creation we have, and without more job creation, he may find that his own prospects don’t look so good.

Susanne Althoff is an assistant professor at Emerson College and the former editor of the Globe Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @SusanneAlthoff. Send comments to