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."
Sign Of The Times
When the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld California's controversial anti-affirmative action measure, Proposition 209, it sent a strong signal that the times really are a-changin'. But what are they changing to? Will Generation X--more ethnically diverse and entrepreneurial than any previous generation--eventually make mute all questions of inequality through the sheer force of its accomplishments?
"We're happy to be here, and fortunately for us, we've seen progress and growth," reflects Kirsten N. Poe, co-founder of Noelle-Elaine Media Consultants in New York City, a 5-year-old firm that works with many minority clients. "There is at least opportunity--and you've got to keep that outlook if you want to succeed."
"I don't think there's ever been a level playing field for women and minorities in America," says Sidney Warren, who owns two Cincinnati-based TCBY Treats/Mrs. Fields Cookies franchises. "So the best thing to do is say `Hey, I'm going to roll up my shirtsleeves and do whatever it takes [to succeed].' "
And, yes, Warren thinks his never-say-die attitude is shared by his peers. He proclaims confidently, "Generation Xers are taking no prisoners."
Noelle-Elaine Media Consultants, (212) 370-5483, firstname.lastname@example.org
TCBY Treats/Mrs.Fields Cookies, 108 William Howard Taft Rd. #400, Cincinnati, OH 45219, (513)569-8591.