Published in The New Hampshire Union Leader
By Ken Johnson

WANT TO keep young people from leaving New Hampshire? Give them opportunities.

The graying of New Hampshire is a topic we’ve all heard. Young people are leaving the state — increasing the average age of residents and narrowing the ratio of working people to retirees. The impact will be far reaching if this continues.

Diversity in age distribution leads to more vibrant communities, fresh ideas replace ones that are dated, technology is adopted more quickly, and change — the natural order of the universe — flows more freely. Expanding the tax base is a nice byproduct as well.

So why are young people leaving the state? The answer is opportunity.

There will always be people who leave just for the sake of getting away, but for most of us who call New Hampshire home, leaving is a function of the types of jobs and careers available in the state.

Almost all of the data points to “stay.” Quality of life metrics including educational systems, cost of living, recreation opportunities, environment and crime all cast our state as a great place to be. Young people who’ve grown up here know that first hand — they don’t need to be sold.

What they do need is a way to earn a living once they reach the end of their formal education. That’s where we can do better.

How? By encouraging business development in the state as well as direct encouragement of entrepreneurship. AlphaLoft was formed specifically for this purpose, emboldening people to start businesses and giving them the help to do so.

I argue the process of fostering entrepreneurship must start even earlier.

BizGen is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that began in 2013 to inspire high school students to pursue entrepreneurship as a career. We do that through entrepreneurial pitch competitions, where student teams develop business ideas, apply topics they’ve learned in school to sharpen the details, and work with actual entrepreneurs to refine and pitch those ideas. The process culminates in a make-or-break pitch day where professional business developers, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs judge the pitches, providing valuable advice in the process.

Winning teams walk away with more than $8,000 in startup funding to put toward their endeavors. More importantly, they get critical advice and guidance, which often leads to long-term relationships with people who can help them realize their goals.

This helps New Hampshire in many ways.

It allows students to establish new and deeper roots in the state. This includes developing relationships with state-based mentors and judges who can help students get their ideas off the ground. Interacting with adult mentors and judges who have successfully created businesses is powerful, as it offers a glimpse into the possibilities of their own lives, while providing them with direct connections in the future.

BizGen events have been held primarily at the University of New Hampshire’s Paul College of Business and Economics. The Paul College is a beautiful facility that serves as a hub of business development in the state. It’s also a resource that students can take advantage of in their next stage of education. In fact, 25 percent of students who have participated in BizGen have gone on to study at the University of New Hampshire — about 3 times the rate at which average New Hampshire high school graduates choose the university, keeping them in the state.

Student data shows that participating in BizGen positively impacts their opinion of entrepreneurship, upping the chances these students will create businesses in the future.

Some 80 percent reported the BizGen experience made them more likely to start a business in the future; 84 percent reported BizGen encouraged them to do better in current high school business classes; 90 percent will use their BizGen work to help them get into college.

Ninety-five percent of all businesses are classified as small businesses. Small business employs 55 percent of the workforce and produces about half of our gross domestic product. Of course every big company started out small. The importance of entrepreneurship and new business creation cannot be understated for the health and well-being of our country and the state.

Over the course of history there have been regions of the country that have thrived as a result of new business development, i.e. Silicon Valley as the computing and telecommunications revolutions developed; Detroit as the automobile industry flourished; and Manchester and Lowell during the industrial revolution. The next regions to thrive will not be determined by proximity to shipping lanes or water power. They will thrive based on the business climate and how well they embrace small business development.

Want to keep young people in the state? Give them the opportunity to develop rewarding careers in entrepreneurship, start businesses and create the future. They will stay, and they will lift our entire state in the process.

Ken Johnson is the founder of BizGen, a 501c3 nonprofit with the mission of encouraging entrepreneurship at the high school level. Participants are challenged to develop their ideas into real companies. A successful pitch competition that lights the entrepreneurial spark for the next generation of business developers, BizGen has awarded more than $24,000 to high school students since it began in 2013.

Johnson also serves as the director of FIRST Tech Challenge, targeting seventh- to 12th-graders to inspire the next generation of science and technology leaders. During his tenure it has become the fastest growing FIRST program, with more than 50,000 students participating across 18 countries. Johnson has an undergraduate degree in finance from the University of South Florida and earned his master’s of business administration degree at the University of New Hampshire.