- - Sunday, November 25, 2018

Historically, uncontrolled government debt has been the graveyard of the world’s superpowers. The Roman Empire, the Spanish Empire, France’s Ancien Regime, and more recently, the Soviet Empire all collapsed under the weight of out-of-control debt.

Does 21st-century America face a similar fate? Possibly, though it’s avoidable. An important difference between today and the past is, the empires that failed didn’t have the resources and opportunities we’re seeing in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Great powers of the past didn’t have at their disposal quantum computing, gene-editing, nanotechnology, 3-D printing, artificial intelligence or big data.

The country or the society that can make the best use of these complex new technologies will enjoy untold economic and geopolitical benefits. But it will take people with entrepreneurial skills to convert these technologies into products and services that customers want to buy.

Entrepreneurial activity is the world’s closest thing to a free lunch. Governments don’t have to create it and citizens don’t have to fund it with their tax dollars. The special role of entrepreneurs is that they create wealth where it didn’t exist before. Think Henry Ford and the automobile, Thomas Edison and electricity, or Steve Jobs and our iToys.

Today, we don’t lack for inventions. Last year alone, 750,000 patents were granted in the United States. Unfortunately, less than 5 percent of patents are ever commercialized.

Innovation that doesn’t result in a product or service that the market will pay for creates neither jobs nor the tax revenue that can help us avoid national bankruptcy. A non-commercialized patent is the equivalent of the old Wall Street saying, “To know and not to act is the same as not to know.”

Building a business organization is a high-degree-of-difficulty task, and those who excel at it are made differently from the rest of us. They work long hours and are dogged in their determination. They often sacrifice spending time with their children and spouses. They are at constant risk that their time and money will end up producing nothing. They also need to be unusually skilled at promoting their products.

We need more entrepreneurs who can take an initial patent and build an organization that provides a good or service that people will pay for and that provides jobs. Could we do better at finding and encouraging this kind of talent? Most definitely.

According to Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, entrepreneurial talent exists in our schools that’s unnoticed and untapped. Gallup has found 2 percent of 8th through 12th graders possess high entrepreneurial talent and 0.5 percent of students have the extraordinary ability to build very large organizations, ones with $50 million or more in annual revenue.

We need to find them. These are young people who, if discovered and encouraged, would put innovation into practice, and in the process create jobs and stimulate economic activity. Importantly, Mr. Clifton says that young people who possess these characteristics exist in every demographic and at every socio-economic level.

Gallup has developed a psychometric tool to discover those would-be business builders. The company’s online assessment BuilderProfile10 (BP10) identifies users’ innate entrepreneurial talents and motivations from a taxonomy of 10 talents — including Confidence, Knowledge, and Determination.

Young people can take the BP10 to discover which of their entrepreneurial talents are strongest and can be best leveraged to build a successful enterprise. BP10 users also learn Gallup’s four step models to building a thriving business: Creating self-awareness, recognizing opportunities, activating on ideas, and building a team.

To develop BP10, Gallup studied 4000 entrepreneurs and 30,000 non-entrepreneurs. They incorporated academic insights from the fields of economics, psychology, biology, anthropology, sociology and management.

We know how to find the future entrepreneurs we are now overlooking. What if educators put at least as much effort into identifying, mentoring and encouraging future entrepreneurs as they put into developing future star athletes? What if there was an effort nationwide, at the state and local levels, to use testing to find future entrepreneurs, and then to teach them the rudiments of starting a business, such as how to pitch their ideas to investors and how to scale up the business once it gets started?

If such testing proves to be useful, a case could be made for offering it to high school students along with their SATS and Advanced Placement Exams. Since entrepreneurial traits exist at every socioeconomic level, youngsters who might never have thought of themselves as entrepreneurs could be encouraged to pursue an entrepreneurial career at a time in life when they have much to gain and little to lose.

Whoever performs the service of identifying and encouraging future entrepreneurs on a national level will be doing the nation and society a profound service. Who will step up to the plate? The Chamber of Commerce? Junior Achievement? The National Merit Scholarship organization?

America will need strong economic growth in the years ahead to cope with the cost of servicing its ballooning national debt. Encouraging more entrepreneurs won’t solve the problem, but it’s a big step in the right direction.

• Mitzi Perdue is the daughter of one entrepreneur, Ernest Henderson, co-founder of the Sheraton Chain, and widow of another, Frank Perdue, the chicken producer. She is the author of “How to Make Your Family Business Last” (R.J. Myers, 2017).

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