The Single Biggest Barrier to Entrepreneurship Among Millennials

A shockingly high number of Inc. 30 Under 30 honorees this year left school with little to no student loan debt. Is it easier to be a rock star entrepreneur without the student-loan monkey on your back? You bet. This story originally appeared on


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Anna Stork left Columbia University in 2011 with a master’s degree in architecture, a business partner for her new startup, and $100,000 in student-loan debt.

In the past five years, she’s paid off approximately $60,000 of it. She cut her housing costs by going back home to live with her parents in Sherborn, Massachusetts, for six months, and then accepted a fellowship with the Kauffman Foundation, which included housing in Kansas City, Missouri, and a small stipend.

After the fellowship ended, she returned to her parents’ home in Sherborn for another year before finally moving to Chicago with her startup, Inc. 30 Under 30 honoree LuminAid. She made a mental commitment to consistently pay back slightly more than the minimum monthly requirement, and sold some stock that she got when she was “much younger.” And for the first two and a half years, she did it without taking any money from her company.

It may sound like a classic entrepreneurial story: taking on a massive student-loan debt load and erasing it through hard work and perseverance while finding success in the high-risk startup world. But it’s not typical of this year’s 30 Under 30 honorees.

Sixteen of the winners–more than half–reported no student-loan issues whatsoever. Of the nine winners who did report challenges building their startups because of student-loan debt, only three left school owing more than $35,000, the average amount for class of 2015 graduates (the highest in U.S. history), according to a report by financial aid resource (Note: The remaining five companies did not respond by time of publication.)

Are young people with crippling student debt less likely to be entrepreneurial successes early in life? Entrepreneurial interest is high: A 2014 Bentley University survey reports that nearly two-thirds of Millennials hope to start their own business at some point. But a 2015 report from the Kauffman Foundation says startup activity is actually significantly lower among people aged 20 to 34 than it was 18 years ago.

That correlates with an increase in student-loan debt, which has become the second-highest consumer debt in the country (behind mortgage debt, currently at $13.8 trillion). In 2000, average student-loan debt per graduate was only $17,000–less than half of today’s figure–according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.


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