Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Generation Startup: Too Little, Too Late?

Currently, entrepreneurship is at all time low for the 18-30 age bracket, which makes sense considering they were the demographic that so ardently embraced Commissar Bernie Sanders. In the past, the ambition to earn financial independence and be one’s own boss motivated entrepreneurs, but today’s millennials need mentors to hold their hands and the structure of fellowships. To that end, Andrew Yang created Venture for America (VFA) to place college graduates in startup ventures for boots on the ground capitalism experience, but the documented results vary drastically in Cynthia Wade & Cheryl Miller Houser’s Generation Startup (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ostensibly about VFA startup apprenticeships, Generation is just as much a promotional film for the Detroit Chamber of Commerce. All of the featured startups are located in the former Motor City, where they are helping to power its comeback, at least according to Wade & Houser’s narrative. Of course, the volume of abandoned houses bought sight unseen through repossession auctions helps drive the initial business of Castle, a remote property management startup co-founded by Max Nussenbaum. Castle shares office space with Brian Rudolph’s Banza, a gluten-free chickpea pasta company, but the actual manufacturing happens in a small plant north of the city. Details, details.

To give credit where credit is due, Nussenbaum and Rudolph have legitimately inspiring success stories to tell. However, Generation’s most compelling POV figure is unquestionably Labib Rahman, the VFA fellow placed at tech startup Mason. Expecting his Muslim parents will disown him when they learn he is no longer religious, Rahman feels intense pressure to succeed while they are still on speaking terms, but his experiences at Mason are decidedly mixed.

Occasionally, Wade & Houser also check in with Kate Catlin at tech startup Detroit Labs, but apparently what they do is so boring she mostly spends her time organizing Women Rising, an organization to promote woman-to-woman mentoring in the technology sector, which seems to practice empowerment through cocktail parties. The filmmakers spend more time with Dextina Booker, an associate with a private grant development agency, but she can never discuss any of her work due to confidentiality agreements, so mainly she just bikes around taking stock of the new and improved Detroit.

Frankly, Generation Startup will make you pine for the glory days of the Silicon Cowboys who founded Compaq computers. They revolutionized the personal computer industry without the aid of mentors or fellows. As well-intentioned as VFA is, the very need for it suggests we have lost our way as a country. Despite the interesting case studies of Castle and Banza, Generation fails dreadfully in its attempts to reassure viewers regarding Millennial entrepreneurship and Detroit’s vaunted rebound. Tellingly, it never broaches subjects like the impact of taxation and closed union shops on embryonic startups. The promotional tone of the film does not do it any favors either.

Viewers looking to learn more about the transformative power of startup capital will be far better served by James & Maureen Castle Tusty’s internationally focused Economic Freedom in Action. Mostly disappointing and largely un-self-aware, Generation Startup opens this Friday (9/23) in New York, at the IFC Center.