Stamatakis: Remember the Colonel, respect American entrepreneurship

By Nick Stamatakis

He’s the white-suited, bearded old man on the chicken bucket who accompanies you on your… He’s the white-suited, bearded old man on the chicken bucket who accompanies you on your pilgrimage towards Kentucky Fried bliss. A colonel — well, an honorary colonel — whose recipe of 11 herbs and spices changed the world.

And he was a real man, which apparently isn’t obvious to many college students. According to a recent USA Today poll, only half of 18- to 24-year-olds could identify Colonel Sanders, the founder of KFC, as a real person. The other half considered him to be only a fictional spokesperson — a Southern-gentleman version of Ronald McDonald.

To the half of you who are still in shock that he was real, you can be comforted by knowing that your ignorance isn’t completely your fault: KFC has not marketed the Colonel well and has strayed from its fried-chicken roots in recent years. Plus, without a KFC on campus, there isn’t too much reason to be thinking about it that often.

But if this poll only spoke about the fast-food industry, this wouldn’t be much of a column. Incidentally, a bigger truth about the nation as a wholewas revealed by the survey: increasing disregard toward the value of starting a business.

Starting a business never used to be such an odd thing in this country, and really it still isn’t. Even with the recession, about 104 in 100,000 adults started a new business in 2009, the highest rate in 14 years.

But we don’t celebrate business leaders like we used to. As the poll shows, Colonel Sanders is quickly becoming forgotten, which I imagine is true of many of the founders of other popular businesses. You can probably name more brands of beer than business founders.

This is bad though, because new businesses are the primary source of new wealth and jobs in America. A Kauffman Foundation study found that from 1977 to 2005, established businesses actually were a net job killer for a majority of the time, while start-ups were the source of all net gains. In other words, while older businesses become more efficient and require fewer workers, new businesses create wealth out of nothing and need more workers. Even considering the fact that most start-ups fail, this truth still stands.

So as much as the Colonel is derided — for contributing to  Americans’ unhealthy eating habits, for being a symbol of a romanticized South, for making it impossible to have a sweet white beard without drawing comparisons — what he did above all else was magically create wealth out of nothing. Even so, I wouldn’t hesitate to guess that few people consider business creation to be a virtuous thing.

Instead, increasing numbers of college graduates who want to be virtuous are devoting their time to service. Many of the country’s brightest join Teach For America, which, according to The New York Times, saw a 32 percent jump in applicants for a total of nearly 50,000 in 2010. And in 2009, over 27.3 percent of college graduates were planning on going into government or nonprofit work, up 5 percent from the year before.

But are these people creating jobs or actually creating wealth? No, at least not directly. Although lauded for being so selfless, they could be thought of as a wasted resource, as many possess the talents and skills that could be used to create actual wealth in new businesses.

In TFA’s case in particular, there isn’t scholarly consensus on whether the program is effective. For example, a 2002 study out of Arizona State University found that TFA-instructed students performed just as well as students taught by under-certified teachers. Sure they might be helping children learn how to read, but is that a good trade-off considering the wealth and service a new business could have provided in terms of new employment opportunities and consumer satisfaction? I’m inclined to believe not.

More people need to see creating a business in this light. Good-hearted, smart people — which I do believe represent a large portion of college graduates — need to realize that you can actually create personal wealth and societal wealth. It is not a zero-sum game.

So the next time you decide you really need a bacon sandwich with melted cheese and two greasy pieces of chicken as buns, remember to thank Colonel Sanders. His vision has made you happier, a chicken supplier happier, a cheese supplier happier and a truck driver happier. Then, if we collectively remember the people who started businesses, perhaps more Colonel Sanderses will exist.