Part of the America’s Entrepreneurs Special Report
In his book Wisdom @ Work, entrepreneur and “modern elder” Chip Conley identifies “intergenerational reciprocity” as a wellspring of social and economic opportunity. “When generations were siloed, both older and younger workers were like hermetically sealed containers with their wisdom trapped inside, but breaking down these walls, there is just so much that we can all learn from one another,” he writes.
His insight is especially useful for business startup prospects. My view: Thanks to growing signs of intergenerational reciprocity, odds are our economy’s long-term future will be increasingly bright. My judgment was reinforced recently by e-Fest 2019, the elite Schulze Entrepreneurship Challenge for undergraduates across the country from the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship and held at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. (The Schulze Foundation is a funder of Next Avenue.)
The student entrepreneurs behind all of e-Fest’s 25 fledgling companies were impressive. But I was especially struck by two student teams whose parents were backing their kids’ entrepreneurial dreams: SMARTWheel and Dr. Brinsley.
The judges were impressed, too: The brother and sister behind Team SMARTwheel, from the University of New Hampshire, came in second and won a $40,000 prize. And the two men comprising Northeastern University’s Team Dr. Brinsley — one backed by his dad in India — won the $10,000 prize for Global Impact.
Multigenerational family startups are popular ventures these days. Older parents typically have some capital and experience to bring to the enterprise. Their adult children offer high energy and tech savvy. The combination can be powerful, as those two e-Fest teams demonstrated.
Brian Evarts, 57, has spent his career as a manufacturing manager for Fortune 50 companies. His wife left hers to raise their kids, including son TJ and daughter Jaiden. The New Hampshire parents enthusiastically supported them when they came up with the intriguing business idea for SMARTwheel: a “smart” steering wheel and app to prevent automobile accidents by providing distracted driving warnings and improving driving habits.
Co-founders TJ and Jaiden Evarts are the CEO; and design chief, respectively; Brian Evarts is the operations and supply manager.
Family and friends came up with $80,000 to support the venture. Brian Evarts offered manufacturing insights. “We committed to it as a learning experience for them to learn what it takes to bring an idea to the market,” he says.
SMARTwheel is a sensor-laden device that slips over the steering wheel. The sensors alert drivers when they aren’t paying sufficient attention to the road. The founders partnered with MIT Age Lab to test the idea and have run through many prototypes. They’ve also appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank; they got an offer, but the sharks and the Evartses couldn’t agree on terms, so the deal collapsed.
The market for SMARTwheel is potentially huge; so are the co-founders’ ambition. “We want a SMARTwheel in every vehicle in America,” says TJ Evarts,
The SMARTwheelers are finetuning their product and plan on launching it the fall. Current price: $170.
“It’s a great product. It will save lives,” says Brian Evarts.
Team Dr. Brinsley
Second generation entrepreneurs Manoj Bhaiya and his wife Swati, both 48, live in Chennai, India. Manoj runs the leather goods company started by his father four decades ago. Swati is head of a recent diversification into the pharmaceutical business. “Entrepreneurship runs in the family,” says Manoj Bhaiya. Their son Vidhan, a student in chemical engineering at Northeastern University, is continuing the family tradition.
On a trip home from college to attend a wedding, Vidhan Bhaiya was troubled that his uncle wasn’t his usual flamboyant, stylish self. He seemed withdrawn, perhaps because he was wearing the bulky, clunky shoes common for diabetics. India has more diabetics than any other nation — 69.2 million — and foot care is critical for avoiding amputations.
So, along with fellow Northeastern student Danny Jooyoung Kim, Vidhan Bhaiya came up with the idea for Dr. Richard Brinsley, a line of stylish, medically-validated, high-quality constructed shoes for diabetics. “The biggest motivation?” he says. “I believe in the cause.”
Vidhan Bhaiya is on a co-op (extended internship) from Northeastern. He’s now spending time in India and the plan is to start manufacturing the shoe at his family’s plant in southern India this year. He’ll return to Northeastern in August to resume his studies.
Says Manoj Bhaiya: “We are happy with his idea. We always knew, although pursuing a chemical engineering degree, that in his heart he wanted an entrepreneurial venture.”
Intergenerational reciprocity is critical to the success of the rapidly expanding entrepreneurial ecosystem of co-sharing workspaces, incubators, accelerators, competitions and innovation districts.
“The wisdom of older and experienced individuals, combined with the fresh thinking and new paradigms of younger generations is clearly a smarter way for all of us to move forward to solve current and future problems,” wrote John Tarnoff, a veteran of the entertainment industry and career coach, after attending a South By Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas.
Here’s hoping the leaders of the entrepreneurial ecosystem actively promote the idea of intergenerational reciprocity.
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