At the tender age of 14, Sidney Warren knew he wanted to run his own small business someday. "I've always been a natural salesman," says the now-33-year-old entrepreneur, who has grown up to be a partner in two Cincinnati-based TCBY Treats/Mrs. Fields Cookies co-branded franchises. Despite his upbeat attitude, however, Warren maintains a certain pragmatism: "Coming from a minority group, I just felt I wasn't going to be as financially successful working in corporate America."
Enter entrepreneurship--not just for Warren but for a host of like-minded women and minority twenty- and early-thirtysomethings. Their mission? To do their own thing--first, last and foremost. But given the fact that no business exists in a vacuum, it's clear that Gen Xers like Warren must also contend with social forces beyond their control. In theory, today's crop of women and minority entrepreneurs are reaping the benefits of decades-long battles for equal opportunities--the proverbial leveling of the playing field. In reality, however, these Xers are in the curious position of coming into their own at a time when equal-ity-driven initiatives such as affirmative action are being criticized--and, in some cases, struck down altogether. It makes you wonder: Just what kind of playing field are Xers competing on, anyway?
"What you're seeing now is not just a repeal or rollback of affirmative action," says Granville Sawyer Jr., who heads Norfolk State University's Department of Entrepreneurial Studies in Virginia. "In my opinion, what you're seeing is a change in the sentiment of society. People are saying [to women and minorities] `That's all you're going to get from us.' "
This societal shift impacts young entrepreneurs. "It's making it somewhat difficult," says Warren. "But I think for true entrepreneurs, it won't stop them. It builds a level of tenacity."
Partners Kirsten N. Poe and Reneé E. Warren (no relation to Sidney) know a thing or two about tenacity. As co-founders of Noelle-Elaine Media Consultants in New York City, Poe and Warren jokingly say they've "been thrown out of the best places" in an effort to build a stellar client roster that includes Nelson Mandela and Colin Powell.
"Affirmative action was needed initially--and it's needed now," says Reneé Warren. "Many people are still denied opportunities."
But even as small-business success stories add up, there remains the nagging perception of a playing field that's yet to level out. "Is it impossible for these young entrepreneurs to succeed? Absolutely not," says Sawyer. "But are they required to do more and produce at a higher level? I believe the answer is yes."